By Michelle Werts

Cannabis plant
Cannabis plant. Credit: Federacion de Asociaciones Cannabicas (FAC)/Flickr


This fun-to-say little word comes loaded with controversy and strong opinions. And it appears that the longer controversy and debate surround it, the more our forests, streams and natural environs may be in danger.

Last year, I talked about how researchers had discovered illegal marijuana plots in 67 national forests across 20 states, which were having negative consequences on the surrounding forests because of diverse issues from trash and debris to pesticide use and the diversion of stream water. Well, apparently, the problem isn’t limited to illegal marijuana plots.

The Sacramento Bee reveals in a recent article that California is struggling with how to regulate medicinal marijuana cultivation, which could have profound impacts on water usage in the state, as well as pollution from herbicides and pesticides. California’s struggles come from the rub of how does one use federal standards to regulate something that is federally illegal?

A girdled tree in a California national forest due to illegal marijuana crops.
A girdled tree in a California national forest due to illegal marijuana crops. Rather than cutting down trees that leave “tell-tale” stumps that are easily spotted by air, trees are girdled midway up the trunk by machete, killing all future growth and eventually the tree. Credit: U.S. Forest Service Region 5/Flickr

The Bee reports that in 2008, Mendocino County created an ordinance to regulate marijuana cultivation. Growers had to pay fees to cultivate plots, which then could be monitored to make sure the farmers were meeting environmental standards during the farming process. Then, earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Justice warned Mendocino that the ordinance violated federal law because it approved the growing of a state-allowed, but federally illegal substance. Thus, the ordinance disappeared and put other California regulatory organizations back at square one on how to allow the growth of marijuana while protecting the ecosystem around it.

Then, there’s the clear-cutting of forests to create farms, grading land on erosion-prone hillsides and finding enough water to irrigate the water-hungry crop that come along with marijuana cultivation — illegal or not. California Department of Fish and Game environmental scientist Scott Bauer describes to the Bee how “some growers fell trees, push them over the edge of a hillside, then bulldoze dirt on top of the trees to create flat planting areas. The bulldozed trees eventually rot, and in the next big storm, the piled soil cascades into the creek below, burying fish-spawning habitat.” So not good. And the problem will probably only escalate if unregulated.

So what to do? As evidenced by the examples above, California needs to be able to hold marijuana growers to the same environmental standards as other farmers because unless our federal and state governments reach some kind of consensus over the contentious issue of medical marijuana, our forests will continue to suffer.