In addition to all the other exciting and mildly controversial aspects of this year’s election, one of 17 measures that have qualified for California’s state ballot is, surprise surprise, the issue of marijuana legalization. If Proposition 64 is passed, which it most likely will be, marijuana will be legalized for adult recreational use, meaning people 21 and older will be able to grow six pot plants at home and possess up to an ounce of marijuana for non-medical use. Prop 64 will also allow California to regulate and tax marijuana, and most of the money from the California Marijuana Tax Fund will go towards youth programs such as substance abuse and treatment. There are many commonly cited arguments for pot legalization, but one issue often not brought to the forefront are the harmful environmental practices of illegal pot operations.
California produces 60 to 70 percent of all the marijuana cultivated in the U.S. The cash value of the annual marijuana crop in California is estimated to be worth $16 billion. To put that in perspective, almonds bring in upward of $6.4 billion annually, and dairy products and wine grapes contribute $6.9 billion and $3 billion respectively to California’s economy. But because of marijuana’s semi-legal status it is almost impossible to regulate the industry and so in many cases, the growing standards are appalling. Many of these illegal operations are located on public lands where harmful practices are destroying local ecosystems.
One of the most worrying issues is water usage. Farmers in California have been feeling the effects of the drought for years, tensions have arisen over water rights, and the cultivation of many crops have been called into question for requiring too much water. But along the North Coast, it takes twice as much water to grow one marijuana plant as it takes to grow one grapevine. And many marijuana growers divert water straight from streams during the dry season, reducing already low water levels. Landowners in Shasta County have reported that their creeks are drying up because of marijuana cultivation, and federal and state-listed species such as steelhead trout and Shasta salamander have been dying because of water diversion. Illegal marijuana farms in Northern California are also drying up the Eel River, which will threaten the native salmon population.
Another issue is the application of chemicals and fertilizers to the plants. Toxic pesticides, some of which have been banned in the US for a while, are poisoning local wildlife and contaminating the water supply. And because marijuana farmers don’t receive crop insurance for their crops, farmers will use any means to get a return on their crops.
Because of the lack of regulation, unsustainable growing methods that would be never permitted in other agricultural settings are widely practiced in the marijuana industry. There have been reports of super steroidal marijuana plants the size of Christmas trees, which reach up to 15 feet high due to a combination of pesticides, fertilizers, genetic modification, California’s growing climate and generous amounts of water. And all this in an area which boasts a culture of progressive environmental awareness. If we legalize pot, then sustainable regulation can be implemented and a proportion of revenues from taxes could be dedicated to preventing environmental damage and restoring land and water, which have suffered from destructive cultivation. Just like we have certifications for sustainably grown food, similar standards could be developed for the marijuana industry and consumers could make more informed purchasing decisions. While pot is going to be part of California culture whether it is legalized or not, the environmental standards of the industry are most definitely not inevitable. So how about some organic, locally grown, pesticide-free pot?
Contact Michaela Elias at melias23 ‘at’ stanford.edu.