Editorials

Editorial: Marijuana growers are wrecking California

A diver counts young salmon and steelhead in a tributary to the South Fork Eel River in Humboldt County in 2013. Some drought-stricken rivers and streams in Northern California’s coastal forests are being polluted and sucked dry by water-guzzling medical marijuana farms, wildlife officials say.
A diver counts young salmon and steelhead in a tributary to the South Fork Eel River in Humboldt County in 2013. Some drought-stricken rivers and streams in Northern California’s coastal forests are being polluted and sucked dry by water-guzzling medical marijuana farms, wildlife officials say. AP

The cost of inaction couldn’t be more clear.

Acres of ancient trees are disappearing and illegal marijuana farms are popping up in their place. Streams and rivers are being sucked dry, diverted sometimes miles away through plastic pipes into tanks. Several species of fish, along with a rare breed of wild rodent, are on the verge of extinction.

All of this is happening now, all across California, but particularly in the North Coast and in our national parks in the San Joaquin Valley. All of this environmental destruction is occurring to grow marijuana and meet consumer demand.

While there’s plenty of blame to go around for how things have turned out in the nearly 20 years since California legalized medical marijuana, much of it must land at the feet of consumers, and of lawmakers.

Apathetic consumers seem unaffected by the environmental damage that weed causes. We buy fair-trade coffee and free-range chickens. Where’s the outrage about the environmental impact of marijuana?

Through the inaction of lawmakers, pot remains unregulated and spreads like weeds. Add to this the drought and speculation that California will soon join Washington and Oregon in making pot legal for recreational use, and our state has the makings of an ecological disaster on its hands.

This was the sobering message that came through July 1 at a hearing of the state Senate’s Joint Committee on Fisheries and Aquaculture. Official after official testified about the negative effects that illegal pot farming has had on the environment and in unfairly exacerbating the drought.

Charlton Bonham, director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, talked about his “existential crisis” while watching species of salmon dwindle to dangerously low numbers.

Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman spoke of how, at a recent bust near Island Mountain, illegal growers had depleted the mighty Eel River to the point that it was full of moss. He estimated the farmers needed about 500,000 precious gallons of water a day to support the nearly 87,000 plants they found.

Thousands of growers are doing the same despicable things to the environment all over California. These aren’t the “old hippies” who have been growing pot for years in California, but the “rich white people growers,” as Allman calls them, who are moving here in droves, hoping to claim a stake in our unregulated market before demand really ramps up for legal recreational use.

“It’s hard to ask everyone to cut their water and deal with water cuts when we’re not dealing with this,” said Resources Secretary John Laird.

The way to curb the environmental destruction is for users to consider the implications of their purchases, and to regulate the industry. Sen. Mike McGuire and Assembly Member Jim Wood, both North Coast Democrats, have bills to do that.

The cost of inaction is too high.

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