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The Environmental Impact of Illegal Marijuana Cultivation

While officials are working to return a grow site recently raided near Mount Madonna County Park back to its natural state, they face an uphill battle in releasing the California wild from the grip of illegal growers.

Growing marijuana in remote, outdoor areas may seem like it fits in with the earth's natural processes. It is a plant after all, right?

According to officials, growing pot illegally in natural habitats, like , causes unimaginable environmental degradation to the land, animals and water that could take decades to reverse.

"All together, it's just a gigantic mess," said Patrick Foi, a warden with the California Department of Fish and Game. "Growers damn up creeks, taking every single drop of water from them. They poach animals, leave trash, destroy habitats, use poison and clear hundreds of trees and bushes to create these grow sites."

Animals living downstream of the damned creeks are adversely affected, he added, and rat poison often used by growers mixes with the water, making it's way into the food chain. A recent study by UC Davis found high doses of rodenticide in Pacific fishers, a weasel-like animal found in California forests. Almost 80 percent of fishers in the state have been exposed to the poison, the study found.

While garbage, foreign substances and water repurposing, as well as contamination, are making land reclamation more difficult, one of the biggest issues facing restoration efforts actually falls on law enforcement's shoulders.

"We've made progress in convincing other agencies to address the environmental damages associated with illegal marijuana cultivation," Foi said. "Other agencies take the idea of growing marijuana very seriously, but they will often just go in and rip the plants out."

While the pot is gone, the infrastructure of the grow operation—tents, fertilizers, irrigation systems, etc.—is left behind, making it easy for the next batch of cultivators to pick up where their counterparts left off.

Foi related an incident in Mendocino County where his agency came upon a grove of 18-inch tall marijuana plants. The plants should have been much taller, closer to five feet, Foi remembered remarking to another warden.

"He told me we were there three weeks earlier and the growers came back the day we left because we only tore out the plants," he said. "They were able to start producing marijuana right away."

As much as his department and others would like to clear out the grow sites completely, Foi said that after an eight hour shift where eight men clear out between three and four thousands plants in 102 degree heat, the time and resources aren't there to get rest of the garden cleaned up.

"The cost for a helicopter, which airlifts about 5,000 pounds of plants, garbage and equipment from these sites, is about eight to ten thousand dollars an hour," he said. "We need more money for helicopter time and more money for personnel."

The department just had five percent of its budget cut, Foi said.

"It's difficult to make progress in these tough economic times," he admitted.

Although growing marijuana unlawfully can be a felony crime, as is the case with 24-year-old Morgan Hill resident , who is set to appear in court August 3 to enter pleas on felony charges related to a , any charges related to environmental impacts are only a misdemeanor, Foi said.

"We spend tens of thousands of dollars in clean up and all we get is a misdemeanor," he said. "That's a battle we've been fighting for a long time."

Sgt. Jose Cardoza of the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office said the site where Sanchez, , and another suspect, who remains at large, were raided will be returned to its natural state.

"The plants were eradicated the next day and the reclamation process will take place in late September or early October," he said. "That's when we'll do the rest of the clean up, fix water streams if they've been damned, get all the equipment, garbage and irrigation systems out. We'll return it to the natural habitat."

Until more funding comes in, Foi said there's no easy answer to solving a problem some people don't view as such.

"People don't think marijuana is a big deal," he said. "They ask, 'Why are we wasting resources on this? Just legalize it and the problem will be fixed.' If you were to legalize marijuana in California and not elsewhere in the United States, California would be a hub of marijuana cultivation. As long as they profit, these guys will be growing at an enormous environmental expense."

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Pete Arballo July 23, 2012 at 05:39 PM
That is all true. Even what Michelle Fitzsimmons was writing about. But I believe the point Mr. Hunt was trying to make is that if it was legal, then people would not have such a slash and burn policy when it comes to growing. Since alcohol is legal, there aren't a whole lot of hooch stills blowing people up or making them go blind because instead of being at risk, just goto the local liquor store and pick up a case. Same with marijuana, if people were allowed to grow it then perhaps more care would be taken and less pollution ( like all the garbage from camping to grow or pesticides or other dangerous chemicals ) into the enviorment. At least that is what I think that is what Mr. Hunt was trying to convey.
Kevin_Hunt July 23, 2012 at 06:55 PM
Right on, Pete. Moonshining is an environmentally destructive process because it involves cutting trees for wood, clearing brush, diverting water, and discharging spent "wash" into streams. These operations are rare nowadays because the vast majority of liquor is manufactured in licensed distilleries.
Kevin_Hunt July 23, 2012 at 06:57 PM
I agree, but smoking rates peaked in 1965. People are quitting smoking (or not starting) because they choose to, not because SWAT teams are threatening them with death.
Michelle Fitzsimmons July 23, 2012 at 06:59 PM
Thanks for the clarification, Pete. That makes sense to me. Kevin, I was simply stating that it takes regulation to make sure growing is done in a way that won't impact the environment. There are regulations on how farmers can grow corn, right? The infrastructure isn't in place--yet--to oversee marijuana growth. And, as Warden Foi said, if marijuana were to be legal in CA, it would become a haven for pot growers. While this isn't in and of itself a bad thing, it just puts further strain on an already stressed system. I don't think simply legalizing it is the solution. Often times, these marijuana farms are actually on large swaths of private land and the owners are not aware that it's even going on. Growers come in and start planting, and many times the land owners report them but ask to remain anonymous for their own protection. Sgt. Cardoza informed me of this situation. Also, increasingly, many of the growers are underlings in large Mexican drug cartels: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/social_issues/july-dec11/marijuana_08-31.html. I wouldn't say they are the type of people growing just for the fun of it. They are looking to make a profit for a large systematic enterprise. If you get the chance to read the PBS story I linked to, one grower says they actually came to California to grow instead of Mexico because the laws are more lenient.
Kevin_Hunt July 23, 2012 at 07:20 PM
"There are regulations on how farmers can grow corn, right?" Right. The regulations mostly are specified by the federal clean air and water acts. If marijuana agriculture were licensed, it would be easier to regulate it. As you have mentioned, marijuana fields are often hidden because they are illegal or to protect from rip-offs. Corn fields are usually not hidden in this manner. "one grower says they actually came to California to grow instead of Mexico because the laws are more lenient" ..and because the growers don't have to smuggle it across the U.S.-Mexico border.

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