August 5th, 2013 by

By Michelle Werts

If you had told me two years ago when I started at American Forests that I would have a series on our soon-to-launch blog about marijuana, I definitely would have had a big laugh, but as it turns out, pot is no laughing matter when it comes to the health of forest ecosystems. While the federal debate over the legalization of marijuana continues to rage, an increasing number of reports are emerging about the harmful effects that the illegal cultivation of marijuana is wreaking on forest landscapes.

Chemicals and trash found at illegal marijuana grow site in California’s Shasta-Trinity National Forest

Chemicals and trash found at illegal marijuana grow site in California’s Shasta-Trinity National Forest. Credit: USFS Region 5

A western fisher, a species being threatened by the use of rat poison for illegal marijuana farms

A western fisher, a species being threatened by the use of rat poison for illegal marijuana farms. Credit: USDA

Last November, I discussed California’s struggles to environmentally regulate a crop that is legal in the state, but illegal federally — meaning it’s difficult to develop state regulations to monitor and control a substance that is banned federally. The reason regulation is such a concern is because marijuana is a water-hogging, shade-hating crop, so in order for it to prosper, unregistered growers are razing forestland and re-routing water supplies to sustain their fields, while using harmful chemicals to keep their crops healthy.

Since I filed my last report, it appears that the situation isn’t getting any better. Earlier this summer, The New York Times reported on the presence of poison in a number of different wildlife species in California — from a member of the weasel family to endangered spotted owls. The source: A rat poison, like d-Con, used to protect marijuana plants from wood rats. Then, last week, The Huffington Post discussed local California officials’ reluctance to enforce marijuana-growing laws out of safety concerns, as many of California’s illegal crops are under the control of Mexican cartel members.

But, before you dismiss this story as a California-only concern, it turns out that illegal marijuana farms are harming forests — and wildlife — around the globe. A recent story on MongaBay.com reveals that Nigeria is also struggling with the environmental impacts of marijuana farming. In a study of nine forest reserves by The Southwest/Niger Delta Forest Project, it was uncovered that 50 percent of the reserves’ deforestation from 2010 to 2012 was due to marijuana cultivation. Making matters worse, these reserves are home to the Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee, which is listed as endangered on International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. So even though Nigeria and California are continents and worlds apart, the struggle to protect forest ecosystems from the harmful effects of marijuana crops is universal. And there is no easy solution.

Hopefully, continued focus on the problem will lead to tenable solutions and a balance between legal farming of a legalized crop and punishments for those illegally cultivating marijuana and harming the environment in the process.