In California’s Emerald Triangle, the nation’s largest area for growing medical marijuana, federal anti-drug laws are keeping the state from regulating the growing industry. A California state law passed in 1996 that decriminalized the use of medical marijuana has led to an influx of dispensaries and pot farms to service them. The marijuana industry is now growing unchecked by state officials because of pressure from the federal government on would-be regulators.
Maggie Caldwell from Mother Jones describes the situation:
The farming of marijuana—for medicinal use or otherwise—remains illegal under federal law. Any regulation instituted by these agencies is, in effect, legitimizing the cultivation of a federally controlled substance, and the US Department of Justice has warned local officials that they could face individual prosecution if they continue to validate the farms. Mark Lovelace, a Humboldt County supervisor, says the DOJ’s policy is actually abetting the weed farmers, allowing them to get away with unchecked land development.
This comes at a time when federal action has brought “renewed chaos” to California’s marijuana industry. The IRS and DEA punish dispensaries indiscriminately, giving advantage to those who can operate under less ethical means. The combined effect of these raids and local authorities’ inability to regulate has pushed some who want to operate ethically out of the market, clearing the path for drug cartels to set up huge operations in the region.
This inaction is spelling disaster for the region around the Emerald Triangle. Without state-level guidelines and enforcement, farms are implicitly being allowed to institute practices that are harmful to the local environment, as well as potentially dangerous for the end user.
Land clearing for marijuana growth has threatened the habitats of animals such as the spotted owl, classified as “threatened” by the Endangered Species Act. A great deal of this clearing has been done on public lands, which is illegal in the state and not protected by its medical marijuana laws. Authorities anticipate finding over a million marijuana plants growing on public lands in California this season alone. The problem has reportedly gotten so out of hand that authorities are using planes and high-resolution cameras to find cleared lands used for illegal farming.
Water and pesticide use is also threatening the local fish population. Several cases of illegal damming and stream diverting have been reported. Those convicted are granted only misdemeanor charges. This is all occurring in an area that has spent millions of dollars attempting to bring the coho Salmon back from extinction.
Even some of America’s most treasured national parks are not safe. A case in September indicted marijuana growers in the Sequoia National Forest who were using extremely toxic pesticides, the active ingredient of which is so potent that “a quarter teaspoon of it can be fatal to humans.” The damage from these grows can have lasting consequences and rely on taxpayer money to be cleaned up. In addition, there are potential health threats to patients, since it is virtually impossible to know for sure how the marijuana is grown and what substances were used to cultivate the crop.
Advocacy groups like the Emerald Growers Association say that sustainable, environmentally-conscious marijuana cultivation is possible and have recommended grower guidelines, which include Integrated Fertilizer and Irrigation Management and the collection of rainwater. For now, in the absence of any real regulatory force, the industry must rely on self-regulation.
Whitney Allen is an intern on the energy policy team at the Center for American Progress.