For about 50 years, California’s cannabis market was firmly rooted in the underground. Prior to marijuana legalization this year, many people entered the industry with one motive: the pursuit of the almighty dollar.
It’s pleasant to imagine a world where all of the farmers who tend the estimated 50,000 cannabis gardens statewide are committed to safe growing practices that support both consumers and the environment. Unfortunately, that thought can be filed under “pipe dreams.” Flagrant disregard for the environment has been one of the most shameful outcomes of the previously unregulated marijuana industry.
Marijuana legalization advocates hoped that a regulated cannabis market would help to weed out growing practices that result in irreparable damage to the environment—killing wildlife, endangering watercourses and affecting everyone who lives downstream.
Now, more than ever, it’s imperative that responsible consumers understand where their cannabis comes from. Your health and the environmental health of the regions that supply the bulk of cannabis to California are inextricably connected. And even if you don’t live in California, it’s important to see what’s going on in the state to help make sure the same thing doesn’t happen where you live.
The Cannabis Black Market Created an Environmental Black Hole
Cannabis may be called a weed, but today’s plants are more akin to pedigreed poodles. To create higher yields and to produce more fragrant, stronger strains, the plant has been groomed to perform under lights and in challenging weather conditions—from searing heat to pounding autumnal rains and even snow.
Both outdoor and indoor growing conditions are vectors for insect pests and fungi that can decimate an entire crop. Cannabis-specific amendments were created to maximize yield, address pest and mold issues, and produce the kindest bud.
Insect pests such as mites, thrips and aphids become immune to pesticides. To save an ailing crop, farmers are often forced to use increasingly dangerous substances, with some growers exercising no concern for the safety of the consumer or the animal life that might come in contact with these products.
Rodenticides—rat poisons—are lethal. Countless illegal trespass grows, which are still common on state and federal lands, have been found to be the equivalent of toxic dump sites. This has resulted in the near-extinction of the Pacific Fisher, a small, weasel-like animal. Only 500 fishers are left in Northern California, and studies confirm that they’ve been dying due to rat poison consumed at illegal cannabis grows.
A Humboldt County Environmental Impact Report estimates that only 2,300, or 15%, of the 15,000 cannabis gardens in the region have opted into the county’s marijuana legalization process. If you purchase your outdoor marijuana flower from an unregulated source, understand that you could be supporting criminals who are systematically ravaging our forest ecosystems.
Everything Flows Downstream—Including What’s Used in Illegal Cannabis Grows
The years of drought have taken an incalculable toll on California’s water resources. And no species is more dependent on healthy, clean water than coho and Chinook salmon, which may be close to extinction, in part from the unscrupulous theft of water by illegal marijuana growers. These growers divert water from salmonid breeding sites while others clear-cut forest lands to create unregulated growing sites, creating smothering siltation, which clogs streams and kills fish.
Fertilizers, kerosene, diesel and even human waste at illicit marijuana gardens have been discovered in and around our precious watercourses, creating additional concerns for rural residents and ultimately, for everyone coming into contact with these watersheds.
The Heavy Environmental Costs of Indoor Cannabis Growing
Some cannabis enthusiasts make compelling arguments for the superiority of indoor-cultivated marijuana. But those hothouse flowers come at a price. Unregulated indoor grows are often improperly wired, creating hazardous conditions that have led to dangerous fires threatening entire neighborhoods.
A recent raid of over 100 residential houses in seven California counties yielded 36,000 plants. Illegal indoor operations are often associated with heavy mold and insect infestations, which once introduced to a grow room are virtually impossible to permanently eradicate, forcing growers to depend more and more on powerful—and in some cases illegal—pesticides and fungicides. The chemicals used to grow marijuana in these suburban neighborhoods go right down the drain and into city water tables, creating unknown consequences for local water agencies.
Kristen Nevedal, chair of the International Cannabis Farmers Association, studied data comparing state-issued indoor and outdoor cannabis licenses. Based on California’s various Type 3 licenses (for medium-sized indoor and outdoor growing operations), indoor operations producing six or more annual harvests expends the same amount of energy as adding nearly 300 houses to the electrical grid. Equivalent outdoor gardens expend energy that adds about 82 houses to the grid. But outdoor farmers pay more taxes and are paid less per pound for their cannabis flowers.
How Safe Is My Cannabis?
Because cannabis remains federally illegal, there’s a limited amount of knowledge about the effects of pesticides and fungicides on consumers. But as more and more states have adopted regulatory frameworks, a troubling pattern has emerged. Toxic residue has been found in regulated cannabis in Colorado, Oregon and California.
One UC Davis 2017 study of 20 Northern California marijuana samples concluded that because of the presence of molds and fungi, those with compromised immune systems and other serious health conditions shouldn’t smoke marijuana. In some cases, fungi and bacteria can severely affect patient health. Steep Hill Labs has been working with UC Davis to learn more about this issue. Today, legal cannabis sold in licensed dispensaries must be tested for microbiological agents (bacteria and fungi) and chemical residues (pesticides and herbicides).
Is Cannabis Legalization Addressing CA Environmental Problems?
Northern California counties are bearing the brunt of this crisis, and recently Yuba County declared a state of emergency, in part due to the number of illegal marijuana sites that they’re unable to eradicate. In 2017, Governor Jerry Brown added $1.5 million to his budget to address cleanup of toxic cannabis sites in Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties.
It’s hoped that a 2017 report drafted by the state’s Department of Food and Agriculture leaves some room for optimism. The report was praised by the California Growers Association and a number of environmental agencies, whose members hope that the higher standards placed on the industry, as well as beefed-up enforcement efforts, will begin to reduce the allure of the unregulated market.
Ultimately, the demise of black market cannabis and the destruction it brings to California’s environment is in the hands of consumers choosing the regulated market over the unregulated one.
3 Ways Marijuana Consumers Can Help Preserve CA Ecosystems
1. Know the source of your medicine. Make sure you’re purchasing cannabis from a licensed dispensary by checking your dispensary’s status on the state’s website.
2. Stay informed. Follow the work of the California Growers Association and the International Cannabis Farmers Association, both of which are working for farmers and supporting the best legislative solutions to protect our environment.
3. Remember, “organic” and “sun-grown” are not legal terms. Look for cannabis that has been certified by reputable third-party certifiers such as Clean Green to ensure your cannabis meets the highest health and environmental safety standards.
Photo credit: Chris De Wit