Greenwashing the drug war: How America's war on pot destroys the environment

Feds and the media say cannabis kills forests, rivers and animals. Is prohibition really to blame?

illustration by jason crosby

A version of this story was originally featured in the East Bay Express at

The photo looks like something out of a horror film:

A long, thin animal lays dissected on a white table. Metal tools pull the animal’s skin back to reveal its jellied, maroon-colored insides—all soupy, slick and lumpy. It’s the remains of a Pacific fisher, an 8-pound member of the weasel family that’s now hovering near extinction, thanks in part to illegal marijuana farming in the vast forests of California.

Fishers eat forest mice, and forest mice nibble the green stalks of still-maturing pot plants. So illicit growers, who toil deep inside California’s forests, spread powerful rodenticides—rat poison—on the ground near their cannabis crops. The mice eat the poisonous anti-coagulants, get sick, and then the fishers eat the mice. Soon after, the furry forest weasels are melting from the inside out.

Mourad Gabriel, a UC Davis doctoral student who has been researching the health of fishers across the state, showed me the photo, which he took as part of several years of research on the animal. Gabriel’s studies show that about 86 percent of fishers in California have been exposed to rodenticides, and that the percentage has been increasing in recent years.

The habitat range for fishers also overlaps nearly perfectly with known illegal marijuana grows on public and private lands in the state. Called “trespass grows,” they’ve been found in medium- to old-growth forests in remote areas that range in elevation from sea level up to 6,000 feet, including the foothills and forests near Sacramento.

Hard-line drug warriors here and Washington, D.C., along with environmental groups and the media, have seized upon Gabriel’s work this year. And, largely because of him, the Pacific fisher has become the 2013 mascot for environmental degradation wrought by pot farming.

But some Northern California officials who are on the frontlines of combating trespass grows say they’re only a symptom of a much larger problem: the drug war itself.

Blame pot—or blame the war on pot?

“My jaw dropped when I saw that study,” said Brad Henderson, who plans habitat conservation for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, referring to Gabriel’s research.

In one study of 58 dead fishers, 79 percent had been exposed to rodenticides, and four died as a direct result of the anti-coagulants.

Gabriel also documented the first incidence of a mother fisher transferring the poison to her offspring through her milk.

In another study, a male fisher was found dead in a marijuana trespass grow on July 31, with a pesticide-laden hot dog still in his throat. (The fisher didn’t choke on the hot dog. He was poisoned by an insecticide “associated with a marijuana cultivation site,” Gabriel wrote in one of his studies.

“It means there’s no place safe for wildlife in California,” Henderson explained. “You can go way into the backcountry, and you got anti-coagulant in predators.”

New federal laws in the works would stiffen fines for trespass grows. State officials are also assembling a 40-agency task force to tackle the problem.

And the media—including Mother Jones, The New York Times and the Associated Press—has piled on with coverage of the environmental dangers posed by trespass farms, including dead fishers; fish kills in streams sucked dry by pot growing; illegal logging, grading and chemical use; and the lack of erosion controls.

“I think it has reached a fever pitch,” said Gabriel of the news coverage. “I think it’s an escalating fever. We haven’t hit the top of it. We’re just scratching the surface. The more we scratch, the higher that fever is going to climb.”

In fact, an increasing number of law-enforcement officials in the state and throughout the nation are now pointing to the environmental destruction caused by trespass grows as justification for continuing the war on drugs and increasing government spending to stamp out marijuana production.

Amplified by a willing national media, the environmental harms caused by pot have become “the new reefer madness,” said well-known marijuana historian Dominic Corva.

Others say the war on drugs itself is to blame for the environmental damage wrought by cannabis grows.

Butte County Supervisor Bill Connelly, a conservative who describes himself as “definitely not an environmentalist,” shares this belief. He contends that ramping up the war on pot because of trespass grows will ultimately fail to either eradicate the farms or protect Mother Nature. As a result, he’s calling for the legalization of marijuana nationwide, joining a cadre of unlikely advocates on the right, including current Humboldt County Sheriff Mike Downey.

They argue that if pot becomes legal, then marijuana production will come out of the shadows and into the light, where pot will be grown legitimately on traditional farms like other crops. At that point, there’ll be no need for growers to head deep into the woods to produce weed and poison animals.

Although cannabis remains illegal under federal law, Americans consume an estimated 2,500 to 5,000 metric tons of marijuana each year, according to estimates from the RAND Drug Policy Research Center. About 30 million Americans smoke or eat cannabis products annually, and about 6 million people use pot daily. Weed is the second-most popular recreational substance in the nation, behind alcohol.

Two-thirds of the pot consumed in the United States comes from Mexico, while about one-fifth of it is grown domestically, according to RAND estimates. California produces more weed than any other state, and according to a 2010 Central Valley California High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program report, may account for as much as 79 percent of all domestically grown marijuana.

The federal drug war also has had a huge impact on Northern California, said Corva, a Sarah Lawrence College professor who spent several years in Humboldt County doing an ethnographic history of pot growing, and now also runs a cannabis-cultivation think tank in Seattle. Big swaths of this region were ravaged and abandoned by logging in the 19th and 20th centuries, and then some of those areas were resettled by back-to-the-land hippies in the 1970s, Corva said. Many liberal activists had dropped out of society after the upheavals of the 1960s, and for them, dope was just another plant in the garden.

Today, $1 out of every $4 in Humboldt County’s economy can be traced to the weed industry, and the area’s rise to dominance in marijuana production can be traced directly to the drug war.

Make no mistake: People grow pot for the money—either to save cash by growing what they personally need or to make money by selling it themselves, exporting it to other states, or cultivating it for medical-pot collectives. Americans spend an estimated $15 billion to $30 billion per year on weed. The value of the nation’s cannabis per square foot is five-times greater than that of poppies or coca, according to RAND.

Currently, a pound of Mexican marijuana costs $50 in Mexico, $500 when it crosses the border, and up to $1,400 by the time it reaches New York. And a pound of high-grade California indoor-grown marijuana sells for $2,000 here and for $4,000 on the East Coast.

Research shows that traffickers make about $1 for every mile they drive east from California. But that figure doesn’t reflect the actual cost of producing marijuana; rather, it reflects the risk involved in doing so. As much as 90 percent of the cost of pot is its risk premium, according to RAND. About 750,000 people are arrested annually for violating marijuana laws, and 40,000 people are in state or federal prison for it. In 2010, the government seized roughly 10 million outdoor plants.

Corva said raising the price of drugs was one of the chief goals of the drug war. The thinking was: Price increases would dissuade impoverished users. What actually happened is the potential for intense profits drew the impoverished into the drug trade.

Today, pot is one of the top 15 cash crops in the United States, RAND reports. And it’s no longer confined to just Northern California. There are black-market plantations hiding throughout the state’s 20 million acres of national forest, as well as in large tracts of private and tribal lands.

Media portrayals of marijuana farming over the decades typically focused on the guns and violence associated with drug cartels. But in 2013, environmental harms became the central focus of the war on pot.

‘We don’t grow tomatoes in Yosemite’

From above, the forests of Northern California appear to have chicken pox.

Patches of rusty-colored boils dot the rugged, sun-beaten timberlands of southern Humboldt County. Swooping down into the region from the God’s-eye view provided by Google Earth, the rusty patches expand to reveal clear-cut hilltops.

Humboldt State University environmental sociologist Anthony Silvaggio counts 600 of these patches covering the southern section of the county, each one centered over bald mountaintops arrayed with outdoor pot plants and greenhouses.

“And that’s not all of them. … There are hundreds more,” he said.

Zooming in and out on each site on his computer, Silvaggio noted how the farms are collectively sucking fragile watersheds dry. Then there’s the illegal logging and the rampant use of animal poisons—plus insecticides, herbicides, fungicides and high-nutrient fertilizers. When the fall and winter rains come, uncontrolled erosion follows. A toxic brew of chemicals and dirt washes downhill into protected areas like the Eel River.

Armed marijuana cultivators of an illegal trespass grow surround a poached deer. The government blames marijuana for the harm to wildlife, but activists finger anti-pot policy as the reason growers head to the forests.

photo provided by law enforcement

The destruction is happening all across California now.

Created in November 2012, Silvaggio’s research video got picked up by Mother Jones in February of this year and retitled “Google Earth Reveals Devastation Caused by Marijuana Growers.” A story by The New York Times followed. The Associated Press piled on, and Dan Rather recently toured the region in a helicopter for a report on AXS TV.

In Butte County, Supervisor Connelly takes reporters to trespass grows on steep, 45-degree hillsides on private land. The illegal farms are studded with denuded trees and littered with poisons and fertilizers. During one tour, he looked downhill and described the fall rains sweeping it all—the chemicals and the toxic soil—down into the creeks, rivers and lakes.

“It definitely has gone up in the last few years,” he said of the number of trespass grows.

But are the impacts from pot-growing larger, or are we just paying more attention to them? The answer appears to be both.

As far back as 1983, the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting made mention of environmental damage associated with forest grows, said Silvaggio. “The problem is not new. Everyone has known about this problem for many decades.”

For example, the back-to-the-landers who seeded Humboldt’s pot industry were tree-hugging environmentalists first, and they have long been furious about the second wave of growers who moved in to wreak the same type of havoc as the loggers once did. Groups like the Environmental Protection Information Center, Friends of the Eel River and the Mattole Forest Futures Project have been advocating for clean pot-growing techniques—including water reclamation, erosion control and organic growing methods—since the 1990s. They’ve gotten a number of environmental groups in Northern California fired up about the issue for at least a decade.

The clamor for more eco-conscious pot-growing then hit a new peak in 2008 with the Hacker Creek diesel spill that fouled a whole watershed. “That broke the code of silence right there, and then people came out,” Silvaggio noted.

But experts say what has really amplified the issue this year are two factors: Federal law enforcement has made environmentalism a new platform of the marijuana war, and the media, which never tires of stories that combine shadowy, violent drug cartels with weapons, weed and helicopters, and can now add cute dead animals to the mix.

Humboldt State University sociologist Josh Meisel said he caught a glimpse of the federal government’s new messaging on pot two years ago in a meeting with Tommy LaNier, head of the White House’s national marijuana initiative. According to Meisel, LaNier said federal authorities “recognize that public opinion has shifted, and they can’t wage this battle on the historic platform of it being an issue of morality.”

According to Meisel, LaNier said, “The public doesn’t buy that anymore. We aren’t going to win this as a battle of morality. We have to wage it in terms of the environmental destruction.”

And in a podcast produced by the U.S. Forest Service in August 2009, U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske said he wanted to build a coalition based on the environmental harms of pot-growing.

“What seems to be missing from the regular media reporting on the whole issue is how much damage is occurring to really pristine land,” Kerlikowske said.

LaNier said in the same podcast: “We need to bring in … the Sierra Club, environmental individuals; we need to bring in as many people, to get them on our side to go to Congress and say, ’Hey, this is enough. Those are pristine lands that were set aside for the use of the public, not for the production of marijuana.’”

The shift in strategy is traveling up and down the chain of command. For example, in a 2013 report on the results of a Central Valley marijuana sweep dubbed Operation Mercury, Benjamin B. Wagner, the U.S. attorney based here in Sacramento, trumpeted the seizure of half-a-million marijuana plants and the prosecution of 84 suspects.

But, instead of focusing on charges of drug trafficking, violence or weapons, Wagner’s office highlighted the environmental damage that the suspects had allegedly caused.

One 26-year-old Mexican citizen who was caught growing 16,205 plants in Sequoia National Forest “caused extensive damage to the land and natural resources,” Wagner’s office stated.

“Native vegetation was cut to make room for the marijuana plants and trash and fertilizer containers were scattered throughout the site, including in flowing streams.”

Another Mexican citizen who was convicted of growing 8,876 pot plants cut down native oak trees: “the soil was tilled, and fertilizers and pesticides, including a highly toxic and illegal rat poison from Mexico called Fosfuro de Zinc or zinc phosphide, were spread throughout the site,” Wagner’s office noted.

And even on the White House’s Web page on marijuana, the environment gets its own section in which the administration states, “Outdoor marijuana cultivation is harmful to the environment.”

Corva laughed when I read him the White House’s statement. “That’s ridiculous,” he said. “Outdoor is better.

“Where does this come from?” he continued. “Sensationalist coverage of the exception rather than the rule, and also the conditions of prohibition, basically.”

Meisel added: “There’s nothing about growing dope that has to involve massive amounts of energy, dangerous chemicals, water diversion, disrespect to your neighbors and killing animal species—just like we don’t have to do that growing tomatoes. And we don’t grow tomatoes in Yosemite.

“These are unintended consequences of the policy, not the plant.”

Prohibition’s failure

Meisel said that the greenwashing of the war on pot “has become a tool to break the back of the legalization movement,” referring to the decision by drug-war enforcers to shift their rhetoric from the supposed dangers of smoking weed to the environmental damage caused by trespass grows in order to gain support among environmentalists for the war on pot. “It’s a strategy to undermine local growing across the board, as opposed to going after people who are violating environmental laws.”

Norms have shifted around marijuana consumption, Silvaggio said. “Presidents have smoked weed. But there’s a need to keep it illegal. There’s this particular function it provides—that is law-enforcement money.

“So they’ve switched tracks,” Silvaggio continued. “And this track has proved very useful.”

But the way to halt environmental harms caused by growing pot isn’t through a new campaign against weed: It’s through legalization, taxation and regulation of cannabis, said Humboldt County Sheriff Downey during a public meeting with North Bay Congressman Jared Huffman on August 29. “I’ve never been a big fan of legalization,” Downey told the crowd. “But right now, I think that’s the most logical way to end this drug war.”

After all, it was the drug war that sent growers into the forest in the first place. And farming in the woods offers no particular advantage for growers—other than allowing them to avoid detection by law enforcement.

“Are they up there for the dry weather, great soil and ample water?” said celebrity growing instructor Ed Rosenthal. “No, they’re up there because it’s hard to get caught.”

Legalizing marijuana and growing it on traditional farms, alongside other crops, also will eliminate the risks currently associated with pot production and distribution—and will likely reduce costs dramatically. According to RAND estimates, fully legalized, commercially farmed high-grade pot would cost just $20 per pound to produce. And low-grade weed would cost only $5 per pound. With profit margins so low, there simply would be no incentive to spend four filthy months growing weed in bear-infested backwoods, Silvaggio and other advocates of legalization point out.

Plus, farming marijuana out in the open would be much better for the environment—there would be no need, for example, to siphon water illegally from creeks and streams. And pesticide and insecticide use could be regulated—like they it is for any other crop.

“If it was grown like corn or hemp, it would be regulated, including the discharge of chemicals and the amount of water used and the way you grade,” said Connelly. In addition, organic pot-growing likely would sprout as a major industry.

And because cannabis is a highly productive plant, it wouldn’t take up that much farmland. According to a RAND study, just 10,000 acres of intensively farmed land could grow all the dope Americans consume each year.

California’s estimated share would total only 1,600 acres. By comparison, the state currently dedicates about 150,000 acres to pistachio growing each year.

The relaxation of pot prohibition has already caused price drops in California, Colorado and Washington, but this half-solution has caused existing farmers to plant more to make up for lost profits. It’s going to take a true market crash from national legalization and regulation to halt wildland growing forever. “I think we’d see a decrease slowly in environmental harms, and then it would be minimal,” Silvaggio said. “Long term, we’d see a recovery in the ecosystem.”

Silvaggio also argued that the news media needs to start sharing the stories of growers who farm sustainably in Humboldt and how they do it. “There’s a total disregard for interviewing and talking with communities that are growing ecologically sensitive weed.”

“Prohibition has failed and it needs to end,” he continued. “If we didn’t have prohibition, we would see this problem go away.”