How Illegal Marijuana Farming Impacts the Environment

Reader Contribution by Kayla Matthews
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Photo by Matteo Paganelli

 It may be a while before the United States allows nationwide marijuana legalization, but more than half of states allow using the substance — with legislation dictating whether people in those places can utilize it medicinally, recreationally or both. And the locations where it’s legalized to some degree typically see significant economic boosts, often because of substantial taxes applied to cannabis sales. Arizona legalized medical marijuana in 2010 and earned $400 million in sales. Not surprisingly, California, a state that permits recreational and medical marijuana, received $2.75 billion from sales.

But even as states get such financial incentives from legalization, they must be mindful of the environmental impacts from illegal grow operations.

Illegal Grow Sites Generate Huge Amounts of Trash

As marijuana legalization becomes more prominent around the country, so do unlawful efforts from growers who want to profit by cultivating marijuana on unauthorized sections of property. More specifically, these growers typically focus on public lands — those that belong to all people but ultimately get ruined by the Earth-harming actions.

During the 2017 growing season in Colorado — which usually runs from early summer through autumn — federal and local law enforcement officials uncovered unauthorized cannabis growth operations on approximately 38 acres of public land in the state, and those statistics didn’t include the islands of the Colorado River.

Investigators reported that the aftermath found at the grow sites was tremendous, and clean-up processes required hundreds of hours of work. At sites within the San Isabel National Forest, people found about 5,000 pounds of garbage at each location.

Marijuana Is an Extremely Thirsty Crop

People frequently talk about the water requirements associated with almond farming and wineries — often making eco-conscious individuals think differently about their favorite foods and beverages. It’s true that those practices and facilities need intensive amounts of water. However, marijuana crops are especially damaging to areas already affected by extensive drought periods.

Researchers from the University of California at Berkeley targeted illegal grow sites and found that marijuana cultivators often use means that divert water away from small streams already parched from reduced rainfall in the state.

The scientists pointed out that although California’s native plants adapt to the state’s climate, the combination of drought and illegal marijuana farms could provide excessive stress to already fragile aquatic organisms. They said the region’s rivers and the fish living in them were subjected to 50 years of logging and soil erosion, and the recovery period has taken just about as long.

All that progress could get thrown off track because of the “green rush” spurred by illegal marijuana growing operations that drain water supplies. During a single growing season, cannabis plants could use 3 billion liters of water per square kilometer — more than twice the amount needed for wine grapes.

A Substance Not Without Benefits

It’s important to keep in mind that marijuana offers various advantages, especially for people using it for medical reasons. Research indicates that certain strains could help regulate blood pressure, reduce anxiety, treat disorders that suppress immune system responses and more.

Some organizations, such as the Sonoma County Growers Alliance, encourage members to learn and maintain sustainable growth practices to help the planet instead of harming it.

People who consume or distribute cannabis for medicinal purposes or otherwise could have positive impacts by choosing to do business with companies that follow such standards themselves or work with growers who have made such commitments.

Pesticides Harm Wildlife and Humans

People who grow cannabis illegally often use banned pesticides and hide them in empty Gatorade bottles or WD-40 containers. The people who clean up the sites of busted operations typically find those containers lying around, but not until after the harmful effects of the pesticides within have started taking hold.

According to one study, 78 percent of illegal grow sites on federal public lands showed signs of carbofuran. That toxin, prohibited in the United States, Canada and the European Union, is so dangerous and powerful that people in Kenya use it to kill lions.

When used at growth operations, it enters soil and streams, poisoning animals and plants. When humans walk through rows of plants treated with the pesticide — such as during raids — they may experience symptoms like lethargy and headaches.

Carbofuran is not the only problem either. Investigators detect dozens of different toxicants — human-created poisons — at grow sites and don’t always know which ones were used there upon their initial assessments. In one instance at a location in the Pacific Northwest, 80 percent of birds in an area tested positive for a poisonous substance.

Experts say growers often manage the wildlife population around their cannabis crops by using food like peanut butter as a bait to lure creatures to eat poisons, ultimately killing animals to ensure planting operations stay profitable.

Illegal Growers Focus on Profits Above All Else

The examples above demonstrate how people who break laws and grow cannabis on public lands will stop at nothing to keep making money. Since they don’t care about the planet, it’s up to members of society to stay aware of these planet-damaging tactics and educate others too.


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