Where the green grass grows
Marijuana crops can be horrible for the environment, but they don’t have to be
Heaps of trash, diverted water from streams, remnants of toxic pesticides and fertilizers, soil erosion—this is not a picture of sustainable agriculture. It’s also not likely something marijuana users think about when they light up a joint. But it’s the scene drug enforcement officers are increasingly finding at clandestine marijuana plots growing within the United States’ public lands and national forests.
The number of plants seized in California’s national forests, where much of the growing is done, rose from 569,000 in 2003 to 2.4 million in 2008. On a smaller scale, it’s happening on Nevada public lands, as well. For example, 14,000 plants were seized in outdoor grows in Esmeralda and Humboldt counties in 2008. And while there are funds for drug raids, there isn’t a budget for environmental cleanup of the mess left behind.
Most of the plots are grown by Mexican drug cartels raising crops for the black market. The drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) used to raise crops in Mexico, then smuggle the marijuana into the United States. But since the border crackdown that followed Sept. 11, 2001, DTOs have found it easier to cross the border themselves and grow the pot here.
According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, Mexican DTOs are the primary wholesale distributors of marijuana in Nevada, and that “those operating in Washoe County typically are supplied by affiliated Mexican cells in northern and central California.”
It doesn’t have to be this way, say marijuana advocates. If marijuana were legalized, taxed and regulated, pot growers would have to follow the same guidelines any corn or soybean farmer has to follow now.
“We don’t see criminals going out and planting barley and hops and grapes to legally create alcohol,” says Dave Schwartz, manager of the Marijuana Policy Project of Nevada. “Having a regulated market is really what is going to stop a lot of these clandestine grows. A legal market makes the underground market unnecessary.”
Schwartz adds that stumbling upon an illegal grow in a national forest or wilderness area can present a danger to hunters or hikers, as they’re not always operated and protected by the friendliest people.
It also takes up the time and resources of the already cash-strapped law enforcement officials on public lands. “Our public parks and public lands are supposed to be enjoyed, but what position does that put our park police?” says Schwartz. “What is their job then? Is it law enforcement, trying to curb these grows? It’s putting a strain on them, as well.”
The MPPN is focusing on changing marijuana policy, either through an initiative or the legislative process. “We’d like to see a system put into place that’s well-regulated, to keep it out of the hands of kids, and allows adults to stop being arrested for what in our view is a waste of law enforcement and money.” He adds, “Eradication programs in California have not worked. The stricter we become for cartels, it’s basically encouraging that. With a well-regulated market, we’re taking out that incentive.”