Panel Examines Environmental Hazards Of Pot Grows In California

What’s the environmental impact of your bud?

A March 6 Public Interest Environmental Law Conference panel at the UO law school explored illegal marijuana grows in Northern California, home to the Redwoods and Mt. Shasta, and their negative impacts on water and wildlife, including coho salmon and Pacific fishers.

Panelist Thomas Wheeler, program and legal coordinator for the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC), explained that trespass grows in California’s Humboldt County often consist of thousands of plants on private or national forest land.

Wheeler said illegal pot grows can harm wildlife by using a particularly potent kind of poison called second generation anticoagulant rodenticides, meant to discourage animals from eating marijuana plants. The poison causes an extremely painful death by hemorrhaging and internal bleeding.

One species killed by the poison is the Pacific fisher, a member of the weasel family. Its West Coast population is currently proposed to be listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, and marijuana grows dot its habitat. A study of fishers in the area showed that 80 percent of fishers tested positive for exposure to a rodenticide of some kind.

More than anything, Wheeler said, National Forest land needs better protection. “We need to combat the misconception that illegal marijuana growth is a social and not an environmental problem,” he said.

Panelist Scott Greacen, executive director of Friends of the Eel River, went on to explain the impact of trespass grows on coho salmon runs.

Eel River is the third largest watershed in California, and its south fork is prime habitat for threatened coho salmon. When marijuana growers divert water for grow operations, it can cause sediment disruption and water loss and, because of this, California tributary Sproul Creek went dry last year. Greacen said that an entire year’s run of coho salmon were lost.

Trespass grows are problematic because they are unregulated, said panelist Natalynne DeLap, executive director of EPIC. “Environmental laws may or may not be in violation, but we don’t have enough law enforcement to go and bust everyone,” she said.

Estimates from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife say there are 5,000 grows in Humboldt County, and that number doubled between 2009 and 2012, DeLap said.

“We need effective regulations now,” she said. “We need to be able to provide a legal framework to cultivate cannabis.”

In California, a group called California Cannabis Voice is organizing to write an initiative that, according to DeLap, bypasses California Natural Resources Agency regulations and has no mechanism to produce revenue for Humboldt County. This is not the solution that Californians need to protect their natural resources, DeLap said.

Panelist Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the Emerald Growers Association, said that regulation is the key, and that “the number-one executive action to be taken is to designate cannabis as an agricultural product.”

He said his organization recognizes that the landscapes on which illegal grows take place are already “devastated,” and he would like to see some revenue from grow operations go into restoration. “Revenue moves bills, and I do believe the governor would sign a regulatory package,” he said.