The massive scale of the illegal cannabis market is harmful on several levels and perhaps most devastatingly on the environment of California, according to an investigative report by NBC News.
One of the most pronounced adverse effects illegal grow sites have on California wildlife is the use of highly toxic pesticides. Illicit farmers have no other means of protecting crops, so they choose insecticides banned in the United States. These chemicals soak into the earth, affecting plant life and growth. The pesticides often kill plants native to California.
Illegal grow operations in California bring in around $8 billion annually in revenue to the illicit operators, nearly doubling the legal cannabis market. Last October, law enforcement officers in the Bay Area seized more than 100,000 marijuana plants from over a dozen illicit cultivation sites.
Wildlife, plant life and the landscape are all under threat as these illegal operations grow and multiply.
In turn, this has a devastating ripple effect throughout the food chain. Insects and rodents may ingest these chemicals and then are consumed by natural prey, which is also at risk.
Maroud Gabriel works for the Forest Service as a regional wildlife ecologist. He describes the effects of the illegal grow operations’ use of chemicals as the “circle of death.”
“We had a dead bear, a turkey vulture that was dead consuming that bear, and then another turkey vulture that was dead consuming that turkey vulture and that bear,” Gabriel said, recalling a previous experience.
A report from NPR showed that California mountain lions are exposed to anticoagulant rodenticides by more than a rate of 90%.
Natural ecosystems face damaging repercussions when there is a void in the food chain.
Gabriel was part of a team of officers from the United States Forest Service that clean up after illicit marijuana sites.
During a cleanup operation in October, a team of agents pulled out over a ton of trash plus over one thousand pounds of fertilizer, over a mile long of irrigation piping, and multiple bottles of banned pesticides. Some of the heavier and bulkier items are airlifted by a helicopter.
Greta Wengert is the executive director of the Integral Ecology Research Center (IERC), a non-profit organization that assists the Forest Service in its cleanup efforts and studies the impact of illegal cultivation operations.
“These are some of the most toxic chemicals you could ever use on crops,” Wengert said.
These harmful chemicals also have devastating effects on natural water sources. California national forests provide 50% of the state’s water supply, whether through snow runoff, lakes, or rivers.
The illegal site that Gabriel was assisting with cleaning up is located in the Cleveland National Forest. Gabriel was also there to investigate downstream exposure of the toxic chemicals.
“The next significant precipitation event is just going to slough all this off to into the San Juan Creek,” Gabriel said while running the site’s soil through his fingers. “That creek right below us is going to not just contaminate critical habitat of the Arroyo Toad, but it’s going to go downstream to San Juan Capistrano.”
San Juan Capistrano is a city of about 36,000 residents. The Arroyo Toad is an endangered species native to California and Baja California.
Water resources are scarce in drought-stricken California, and illegal operations often siphon off precious water sources. Illegal operators in the Mojave Desert have stolen water from agricultural aqueducts and wells.
They have also gone as far as crack open fire hydrants to take the water supply.
In Antelope County alone, the Los Angeles Fire Department removed 100 fire hydrants to prevent such theft. These grow operations have rerouted millions of gallons in the past two years, taking valuable resources from communities and firefighters.
Water theft directly affects firefighters’ resources when fighting and containing forest fires. When fighting a fire, firefighters rely on legal waterways to put out blazes, often using millions of gallons of water.
Thirteen wildfires (perhaps more) have been directly linked to illegal grow operations.
“This is an abuse of the natural resources and the land that we as an agency are stewarding for the public,” Gabriel said.
Marijuana cultivation season coincides with the height of wildfire season, so funds that should be solely focused on protecting the environment from fires are in part rerouted to seek out illegal grow operations.
The often drought-impacted forests are incredibly vulnerable. Cigarette sparks, campfires, and even car backfiring have all been linked to fires stemming from workers on illegal cultivation operations.
Despite these extreme hurdles law enforcement, firefighters, and ecologists alike face, there may be hope for protecting the Californian environment.
President Joe Biden recently signed a new infrastructure bill, which substantially increased the Forest Service funding. This funding will go directly to fire prevention and fire fighting. The Forest Service may also receive increased money for annual spending, focusing on removing illegal grow sites; while the Senate has not approved this, the House has.
Yet another victory is that members of California’s House (in a bipartisan effort) have presented a bill to increase penalties for stealing water from federal land.
While some of these measures have yet to be implemented, the potential for more funding gives the Forest Service hope. Cannabis consumers can also do their part by only buying legally, whether flower buds, pre-rolled cones, or anything in between. Whatever action is taken, it needs to be taken soon – the environment in California is too important not to be protected.