If Pot’s So Green, Why Does It Cause So Much Environmental Degradation?

Over the summer, a multi-agency law enforcement crackdown swept into Northern California to tackle the growing practice of marijuana cultivation in state forests. Hundreds of thousands of plants were netted, over 100 arrests were made, and the crews also uncovered substantial amounts of garbage and polluting material. Pesticides. Herbicides. Fertilizer. Straight up garbage; food wrappers, packaging, all the other detritus that accumulates at marijuana plantations. Long after law enforcement left, environmental services agencies were in the woods, attempting to clean up after marijuana planters.

Such operations are common, and they’re used by law enforcement for public relations coups. They can point to all their hard work and use this as evidence to demand more funding, to highlight their relevance. With ongoing budgets, ‘justify your existence’ operations of this nature are extremely common. These agencies want each year’s campaign to be bigger and better, because that’s how to land and keep the funding they need to survive. The press happily obliged with constant updates, a daily tally, and headlines around the world; I was reading about Mendocino National Forest on the BBC website, for example.

This particular campaign was a direct response to ongoing tensions over marijuana cultivation on government property. State and national parks are increasingly unsafe, especially during harvest season. It’s not just that you cannot go off the trail, but sometimes that you cannot enter parks at all. Vicious attack dogs and men with guns cause injuries, vigilantes are out trying to push the growers off, and things are getting very, very ugly. The state wanted both to crack down and to send a message to citizens; it hears their complaints, it is trying to address the problem. The public safety aspect of marijuana cultivation is important, and it’s often elided in debates about legalisation; defenders of legalisation claim that we are ‘smearing’ growers when we talk about these issues, when, actually, we’re sometimes highlighting the case for legalisation.

You don’t need armed defenders and guard dogs and booby traps if you can grow your crop legally. I don’t see corn plantations surrounded with razor wire, or wheat farmers posting people in the fields with shotguns. Because their crops are legal. They don’t need to defend them. Growing zucchini doesn’t pose a public health and safety risk. If marijuana were legal, many of these safety issues would be eliminated simply because there would be no call for arming growers, for sending crews out with watchdogs to keep an eye on plantations.

There also wouldn’t be a reason to grow in secret, which would eliminate the need to cultivate on government land. Which would have clear environmental benefits; our public parks wouldn’t be trashed and filled with nasty chemicals if people weren’t growing marijuana in them. Again, people who discuss the environmental costs of marijuana cultivation are told that they’re smearing the industry, while we’re actually highlighting a problem that could be resolved through legalisation. With legalisation would come more appropriate sites for plantations, sites that wouldn’t threaten endangered species and require people to trek supplies through pristine forests. People could grow openly on land they could legally own without risk of seizure.

I’m a supporter of legalisation, not just for marijuana but for all drugs, and of regulation. I support collecting taxes on drugs, making sure they are pure and safe to use, ensuring that people have access to clean and appropriate supplies. I don’t want people using leaded glass bongs and dirty needles. I don’t want drug use to be highly stigmatised. I want it to be as safe as possible for people who want to access drugs, and I want a nonjudgmental and freely available framework for people who want assistance getting off drugs to be in place.

From both an environmental and human health perspective, there are strong arguments for legalisation. Drug manufacture, distribution, and sales wouldn’t be nearly as dangerous if it wasn’t illegal. The market would also fall, dramatically, which would make it less appealing to people who want to make lots of money by exploiting people who buy drugs. Cartels have no reason to be involved in, say, the beet market. The per pound price for oregano isn’t terribly impressive. Legalisation would cut the bottom out of the market, and turn drugs into a business transaction, just like so many others we make on a daily basis.

Paradoxically, by arguing for full legalisation, I’m also indirectly arguing for the death of my own community. Drug money is a big part of what makes this place tick, it props up a number of local institutions, it is, for some people, the only way to have a fighting chance at getting ahead in this world. Removing our black market would have a profound impact. Even though growers and dealers don’t pay taxes, don’t contribute to charity nearly as much as they claim, don’t play an active role in improving the economy, they do spend money here. Sometimes lots and lots of money. They provide jobs, for that matter. They contribute to economic growth, though often indirectly. Legalisation could create considerable social and economic problems for Mendocino County and our neighbours.

But, in the long term, it’s clearly the right thing to do. The industry as it stands now causes considerable social harms which are not outweighed by the benefits. Pollution on public land is an issue. Safety is an issue. People need to be able to enjoy public land safely, need to be able to walk in state parks.

For that matter, people need to be able to enjoy their own land safely; in recent years, there’s been an uptick in plantations secretly established on private land. Walking the fencelines and finding a plantation is a very unpleasant surprise especially with hostile law enforcement around, because if you can’t prove it’s not yours, your property could be seized. Rounding the bend to find someone with a gun, or an aggressive dog, or a booby trap, is also a very unsettling experience. The environmental and social costs of large scale marijuana production are too high to ignore, and what we’re doing now clearly isn’t working.