Growing pains

Pot cultivation causes environmental and public-safety concerns

A worker removes irrigation tubes used to water marijuana in Tulare County, Calif., during the summer of 2008. Twenty-seven miles of irrigation lines were removed from this grow.

A worker removes irrigation tubes used to water marijuana in Tulare County, Calif., during the summer of 2008. Twenty-seven miles of irrigation lines were removed from this grow.

Photo courtesy of HELEN HARBERTS

Outdoor adventurers trekking through unfamiliar territories may want to consider equipment other than backpacks and walking sticks. Hazmat suits and bulletproof vests may be in order.

That’s because large-scale marijuana-growing operations in the most remote reaches of California’s national forests increasingly compromise both the environment and public safety.

Steve Collins, sergeant with the Marijuana Unit of the Butte County Sheriff’s Office, said growers often divert streams and sometimes dam them and add chemicals to the water supply, affecting everything downstream—including wildlife, humans and plants. Growers bathe and wash clothes in the streams. Sometimes the water diversions dry up entire drainages within a watershed.

Additionally, Collins said, growers frequently clear—sometimes clear-cut—mountainous areas for grow sites (which can include terracing). These areas are then prone to significant erosion.

Law enforcement officials say the illegal growers—often Mexican nationals working for drug-trafficking organizations—inflict much environmental damage to forests, water and wildlife. Common problems include illegal use of pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers.

Illegal growers cause a host of environmental problems with their cultivation techniques, which oftentimes include clear-cutting large swaths of forest. Terraced gardens cause erosion and other changes to the natural environment.

Photo courtesy of HELEN HARBERTS

Growers use rodenticides to kill small crop-eating animals, but the poison is ingested by other mammals and birds, leaving poisoned carcasses that continue to poison the food chain. The same growers, who camp at the sites, illegally shoot and eat wildlife, including deer, bears and birds. Trash—pesticide containers, chemical fertilizer bags, camp waste—abounds at the sites and may empty into streams.

The Marijuana Unit raided a grow operation last summer in the Milsap Bar area of the Feather River Canyon, Collins said, where growers—Mexican nationals—had “left trash all over the place.” The officers caught one suspect who had a loaded shotgun. Another suspect got away.

Collins said he and his fellow officers frequently confiscate handguns, shotguns and rifles during raids in remote mountainous regions. He said hikers who venture onto public lands increasingly face the possibility of violence. “A lot of people just don’t get to enjoy parts of the mountains that are really quite beautiful,” he said.

Grows in urbanized regions create environmental woes, too.

Sophisticated indoor operations often include “air scrubbers” (pictured at center) that remove the telltale odor of marijuana.

Photo courtesy of HELEN HARBERTS

Indoor grows pose a whole other set of problems: chemical waste dumped down drains; molds—including toxic molds—that get into drywall and all other parts of houses; fires from illegal use of electricity and faulty wiring; diesel spills from generators; and odors that can be offensive to nearby residents, especially people with allergies.

Tommy LaNier, initiative director for the San Diego-based California Marijuana Initiative, echoed every problem Collins cited, including the growing danger to hikers and other adventurers. “You have a number of armed individuals out there who are protecting a huge investment.”

Mountain grows—in some cases in excess of 50,000 plants—can potentially be worth millions of dollars in street value. For the past four or five years, he said, California law enforcement agents have engaged in gun battles with suspects, but they’ve “won every one of those battles.”

LaNier said it takes about $15,000 to restore one acre of land that growers have cultivated, and “one [environmentally devastated] acre will affect 10 acres.” The United States Forest Service has some money available to rehab lands, but there isn’t enough money for all the restoration needed.

Helen Harberts, a Butte County assistant district attorney, said the environmental damage caused by both outdoor grows in the mountains as well as residential outdoor and indoor grows is “getting to be a big problem.” When she looks at the photographs of grow sites (that are used as evidence), she is “shocked” by the environmental contamination going on “in places that should be pristine.”

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The public would be very surprised if the extent of the problem were more widely known, she said.

Harberts said both residential outdoor grows and indoor grows create many problems in Butte County—and she personally takes offense at the intense odor of marijuana grown in her own Chico neighborhood. She said the “vagueness” of Proposition 215 (the Compassionate Use Act of 1996) has resulted in some people who are “greedy liars” taking advantage of the law, with a resultant proliferation of urban grows.

“I am somewhat intolerant of the way the law has gone here,” said Harberts, who claimed that there is no solid scientific evidence that marijuana is “medicine.” “California [voters] really didn’t get it right.”

One solution would be for voters to decide that only certified commercial growers could cultivate marijuana, which is what is done now in New Mexico. Right now, she said, the Prop 215 situation is “just one plain, big mess—a social mess, a legal mess.”

Harberts said the debate over how the law is being implemented is emotion-driven when it should be fact-driven.

“It [Prop 215 and the proliferation of residential outdoor and indoor grows] is a big problem, and we need to address it in a thoughtful way,” she said. “There are a lot of issues that need to be raised and examined.”