Over the past year, there has been increased attention on an unfortunate side-effect of the growing demand for cannabis. With demand comes supply, and that supply is threatening already fragile ecosystems in northern California.
Some cannabis grow operations are run by careless individuals who are polluting streams with pesticides and fertilizers, while siphoning huge amounts of water from the same streams for irrigation. Small waterways are a precious resource in this region, and the historic drought has already lowered stream levels dramatically.
Rat poison, industrial pesticides, and banned chemicals are used to prevent pests from getting at cannabis crops. These highly toxic pesticides lay waste to insect populations, sicken or kill predators, and are having a significant impact on the Pacific fisher. The Pacific fisher is a cat-sized mammal that feeds on rats and fish, and is close to becoming endangered.
Streams in Northern California are being sucked dry by cannabis farms, especially in Lake, Humboldt and Mendocino counties. While reducing valuable aquatic habitat in these areas, it is especially harmful to salmon and steelhead, which depend on these streams in their young stage. Clear-cutting forests for cultivation, creating sediment runoff from road-building, and fertilizer/pesticide runoff further threaten the aquatic life.
A study released in June sums up the situation:
"The environmental harm caused by marijuana cultivation has largely been ignored, but this is a mistake," said Carlson. "Marijuana is a thirsty crop that often relies on surface water diversions during California's summer dry season. While many of our native aquatic organisms are adapted to California's Mediterranean seasonality, the combination of our current drought and summer water diversions for marijuana could be a one-two punch that drives declines in several sensitive populations.
They estimate that cannabis cultivation in California uses nearly twice as much water as wine grape cultivation, or almost 3 billion liters per kilometer in one season.
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What is the answer to this conundrum? Demand is not going to slow, and people will go to great lengths to cash in on the business.
There is a simple answer.
Completely legalize cannabis at the federal level and in every state. Tax it if you must, treat it like alcohol if you must, but end what everyone knows is the farce of prohibition.
California supplies 60% of the cannabis consumed in the U.S. The strain on its fragile ecosystems would be greatly reduced, or perhaps vanish, if cultivation was allowed in other states. There are many other areas in the country where cannabis cultivation would be suitable and water is readily available without impacting ecosystems. Indoor cultivation, which minimizes water use and confines chemicals, would also provide a significant cannabis supply.
Another reason legalization is the answer is that it would encourage responsible, forward-thinking growers to populate the market. Those who degrade the environment would lose the popularity contest. Legitimate growers with sound practices would set the standard for cannabis cultivation.
Lastly, although this is not the ideal way to achieve progress, the polluters would be subject to laws governing the use of pesticides and stream water. With complete legalization would come rules regarding cultivation’s environmental impacts, making it less likely that individuals will risk punishment.
Before this happens, we need to end the era of prohibition. Even the most die-hard Reefer Madness politician must question his conviction after learning that both the U.S. government and National Cancer Institute have admitted that cannabis kills cancer cells. This is on top of the myriad other medical benefits it provides, such as preventing epileptic seizures. Not to mention there is an inherent violation of civil rights in denying a person the choice to use a dried plant.
Hurry up and drop your delusions, government, for the sake of morality and California’s aquatic ecosystems.