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Saturday March 17, 2018

By Nicholas Demski


We shouldn’t blame any profession for its bad apples, should we? Are all lawyers bad because a few defend mob bosses? If you answered ‘no,’ then we have one more question for you: are all marijuana cultivators destroying the environment? Of course they aren’t!

Although there are several outliers (mainly black market growers), the cannabis industry is working hard to promote sustainable cultivation and manufacturing practices. However, anti-cannabis crusaders want you believe otherwise. Their current narrative: we need to keep prohibition because marijuana grows damage the environment.

These crusaders aren’t completely wrong; marijuana cultivation does have several negative impacts on the environment if not conducted in a sustainable manner. What they fail to mention? Legal cannabis is working towards cleaner practices each and every day and the worst of the cultivators survive on the black market.

And what they don’t want to admit? Ending prohibition would curtail the black market and strongly reduce the need for illegal cannabis grows.

The Environmental Impact of Black Market Cannabis

To give you a better feel for the negative impacts of black market cannabis, we’ve itemized the top four ways that illegal cannabis grows negatively impact the environment and the best idea as to what to do about it.

Material Waste Disposed Improperly

According to Conservation Frontiers, a publication of California Council of Land Trusts, authorities discovered a staggering amount of material waste in 2017 on the more than 300 illegal marijuana plantations they uncovered and dismantled in California. In their searches, they found 315,000 feet of plastic hoses.

Plastic Pipes in Illegal Grows
Forest service workers clean plastic hose from an illegal grow site. photo credit

That’s the equivalent of over 1,000 football fields worth of plastic hoses laid end-to-end. Additionally, authorities uncovered 19,000 pounds of fertilizer which can have a drastic impact on the environment if not used and disposed of properly.

Frighteningly, the authorities estimate the Illegal marijuana plantations generated roughly 180,000 pounds of garbage, not including the plastic hoses and fertilizer.

To give you a sense of scale, it would take over 40,000 people dumping their daily garbage in one spot to produce that kind of waste. Keep in mind, this is just one state and all this material waste was found in California alone.

When there is an incentive to grow illegally, there is an incentive to handle the sites improperly. Illegal marijuana grows will continue to be a problem as long as prohibition remains in place, according to Mary Power, a biologist at the University of California, Berkeley.

Waterways Polluted; Harmful Chemical Practices

The water usage that illegal cannabis productions demand is substantial. Per a Mother Jones article written in 2014, illegal outdoor marijuana grows use up to 60 million gallons of water each day during the growing season. To put that in perspective, the article claims that is 50% more water per day than what is used by every resident of San Francisco combined.

The sheer volume of water being consumed by illegal cannabis grows is a problem in California, a state that has been suffering from drought and massive fires.

Water consumption isn’t the only issue either. How would an illegal grow operation handle the threat of tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of damage from insects, animals, and other plants encroaching on their sites? They would employ the use of pesticides, rodenticides, herbicides, and fungicides. Sadly, this isn’t a hypothetical question.

Chemical Trash at Illegal Grow Site
Unfortunately, chemical waste is often left behind at illegal grow sites and jeopardizes the environment. photo credit

Illegal grow operations use an array of dangerous chemicals to help control their marijuana plants’ environment. Even more sadly, due to their lack of oversight and persistent mishandling of these noxious chemicals, the poisons seep into the waterways.

The USDA noted that these illegal operations are potentially threatening people’s drinking water who live downstream. Would you want to be drinking warfarin and round-up? Thanks to the illegal cannabis grows, you may unwittingly be doing just that.

Illegal Operations Need Sunlight Where It Shouldn’t Be

Since illegal outdoor marijuana grows occur in areas that are often difficult to access, this means they are in areas that have otherwise been untouched by humans. Forests provide a dense canopy that doesn’t provide enough sunlight for marijuana to be grown to market quality. So, the illegal grow operators have found an unfortunate solution: cut down trees, spray herbicide and make room for sunlight to reach the forest floor.

In an article written by Earther, they discussed the possibility that illegal marijuana grows, while not as large in terms of square mileage as the timber industry, can have a similarly devastating impact on the forest in which the illegal grows occur.

Girdled Tree
Instead of cutting down trees (which is easy to spot via helicopter), illegal growers "girdle" trees to stop future growth of leaves and needles. photo credit

There are a few reasons for this: the illegal grows punch holes in the interior of the forest, they expand the periphery and make it more difficult for shade-loving plants to propagate. They break up the ‘pristine’ centerpieces of the forests that are already under siege on their outer edges.

While the article reported that just 6.2 square kilometers of California’s ‘Emerald Triangle’ is impacted by illegal cannabis grows, the cumulative impact on the forest’s ecosystem is substantially higher than the timber industry’s on a per unit of area basis.

Illegal marijuana grows are making the forests of California look like Swiss cheese. Science Daily quantified this issue. They reported, “the cannabis grows resulted in 1.5 times more forest loss and 2.5 times greater fragmentation of the land-scape.”

Animal Life in Severe Danger Near Illegal Marijuana Grows

In the same article that the USDA noted the problems that noxious chemicals can have on the waterways on California, they provided an anecdote of a fox that had ingested poison near an illegal cannabis grow. The fox inexorably perished before a vulture feasted on its body. The vulture died not far from the fox. Then, the insects that had overtaken their bodies died as well.

The chemicals that illegal pot farmers use are often incredibly potent, sometimes homemade.

The most common poison being used is warfarin. Essentially, warfarin prevents blood from coagulating and turns any creature that ingests it into a bag of soup.

How to Solve These Problems

All of the aforementioned issues stem from the illegal cannabis market. Legal growers tag and track their plants, and follow waste management and chemical disposal guidelines. As mentioned above, the legal cannabis industry is continuously working towards more sustainable practices as well.

To end the assault on our environment, we must end the assault on legalized marijuana.

Prohibition has led to a sizeable black market that follows no rules and refuses to embrace an ecologically sound approach to cannabis production. If marijuana were to be legalized at the federal level, the black market would begin to dry up as the operators of these devastating grows wouldn’t have as large market to sell to.

If you’re looking for a solution to these problems, look no further than the end of prohibition. In fact, take a cue from the alcohol industry: it’s highly regulated, taxed, maintained, and, how many bootleggers and speakeasies do you know of?

There’s no longer any good reason to federally prohibit marijuana – only our Congress members can make the systemic change we so desperately need, why not give yours a call?

Do you think legalization could curb the negative impacts of illegal grows? Comment below!

Photo Credit: Pacific Southwest Region 5 (license)


Nicholas Demski Nicholas Demski

As a former global educator, Nicholas uses his B.S. in biology to leverage his understanding of cannabinoid science into meaningful content for readers. For several years, Nicholas has written for several blogs, including Green Flower, and provided copywriting services for CBD and cannabis companies worldwide. He's also a Staff Writer for Terpenes and Testing Magazine, CBD Health and Wellness Magazine, and Extraction Magazine.

While Nicholas is a medical cannabis patient in Michigan, he has traveled from Spain to Colombia to Cambodia to see what cannabis is like around the world. He uses his background in science, world experience, and unique writing style to help people learn more about cannabis and cannabinoids at and on Instagram @Cannabiologist. You can also connect with Nicholas on his LinkedIn profile.

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