Legalization Won't Root Out California's Toxic Weed Farms. But It's a Start.
A helicopter prepares to airlift trash found at an illegal marijuana grow on the Tule River Indian Reservation. Growers were diverting water from the Tule River, the tribe's main source of fresh water. Photo: Spc. Brianne Roudebush/California National Guard

Legalization Won't Root Out California's Toxic Weed Farms. But It's a Start.

The common assumption is that statewide recreational marijuana legalization would be a panacea to the environmental harm of massive illegal weed grows. The reality is not so straightforward.
November 6, 2016, 8:00pm

This is part of United States of Weed, a Motherboard series that demystifies all the cannabis legislation for Election 2016. Follow along here.

Two black bears, a deer, and a gray fox.

The decomposing corpses are strewn among 7,000 pounds of propane tanks, tarps, car batteries, fertilizers, pesticides, banned rodenticides from Mexico, and other trash, plus 4,000 pounds of irrigation line blanketing an abandoned 20,000 plant illegal marijuana grow site in northeastern California's Lassen National Forest. What was once unspoiled landscape is now a pockmarked 12-acre slagheap reminiscent of no man's land.

It's one example of thousands of similarly destructive illegal cannabis grows occurring each year on California's public lands, according to Mourad Gabriel, Executive Director and Senior Ecologist at the Integral Ecology Research Center.

Mourad has organized cleanup efforts at this and other illicit marijuana operations in the more remote areas of northern California. When Mourad first started doing this work it was overwhelming for him to see such blatant disregard for the environment. But having now participated in hundreds of cleanups, he's almost inured to the destruction. The day I spoke with Mourad he was joined by a few first-time volunteers. Upon arriving at the former grow site, he said the volunteers stared in awe for minutes, dumbstruck and unable to fathom the damage and waste in front of them.

"You can't even believe that there are folks turning this beautiful pristine area into their trash bin, and it's all for pure greed," Mourad told me. "This is strictly for money, to make as much profit as possible and at the expense of the public good."

"Proposition 215 came in 1995-1996," he added, referring to California's Compassionate Use Act, a landmark piece of legislation that allows patients with a doctor's recommendation to possess and grow cannabis for medical use. "Look at California now. You're talking two decades and it's just prolifically getting worse. Can our environment really sustain what's been going on for another ten years?"

"You can't even believe that there are folks turning this beautiful pristine area into their trash bin, and it's all for pure greed."

Besides spearheading such large-scale cleanups, Gabriel is also a first-class ecologist. In one of his more prominent and ongoing investigations he has been tracking long-term toxicant levels in Pacific fishers, a threatened species of forest carnivore, and the spotted owl, a federally-listed species, resulting from the chemicals used on illegal marijuana grows. The initial results of the investigation are disheartening.

The common assumption is that legalizing recreational marijuana in California would discourage this sort of large-scale illegal marijuana cultivation on public lands, and, as consequence, the resulting environmental damage responsible for poisoning wildlife, among other things. A 'yes' vote on Proposition 64, a proposed state law on which Californians will vote this November 8, would permit the possession and use of marijuana for recreational purposes for adults aged 21 or older. Proposition 64 would also require suppliers to acquire a state license. The bill is expected to pass.

Statewide recreational marijuana legalization, the argument goes, is a panacea to the environmental harm of large-scale illegal cannabis grows in California. But the reality is not so straightforward.

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Gabriel prepares the documentation of a cleanup. Photo: IERC

The damage at the Lassen site may seem extreme. But the poisoning and death of animals, including fishers, martens, spotted and barred owls, bobcats, mountain lions, gray foxes, black bears, deer, quail, rodents, and rabbits; as well as the residual trash resulting from illegal cannabis cultivation, represents only a scintilla of the total damage wrought by these operations.

Deforestation, wildfires, and erosion from terracing and the slapdash construction of roads are some of the more visible effects of illegal marijuana grows, according to Karen Escobar, an Assistant US Attorney in California's Eastern District. Diverting and tapping water from streams and springs, exhausting underground aquifers, and overloading watersheds with pesticides, rodenticides, and fertilizers are other ways that illegal grows decimate the environment. One recent study showed illegal marijuana cultivation to be the biggest threat to the survival of federally-listed salmon and trout.

Escobar has spent years prosecuting these operations. The practices being used today at big illegal grows were once considered extreme, according to Escobar. But not anymore.

"The extreme is now the normal," she said.

Read more: California Will Vote on Legalizing Marijuana With Proposition 64

A total of 1,893 illegal outdoor grow sites in California were eliminated in 2015, according to the US Drug Enforcement Administration. Almost half of these were on public lands. With cleanup and rehabilitation efforts ranging between $10,000 and $100,000 per site, the cost of this damage is substantial. And given the remoteness and ruggedness of California's terrain, many grows simply go undetected.

California alone produces 70 percent of the US's total output of both legal and illegal cannabis. It is estimated that this comes out to around 49,106 metric tons per year. The state's climate and geography combine to create the consummate weed-growing conditions.

At the same time, the US opioid epidemic has resulted in the DEA de-emphasizing marijuana operations, according to DEA spokesperson Russell Baer. This has further strained the influence of already underfunded local law agencies. And the superabundance of California wildfires only saps enforcement efforts by diverting National Forest Service personnel away from fighting illegal grows. These two factors have created a law-enforcement vacuum in remote areas like Lassen National Forest, with low-risk, high-reward conditions so conducive to criminality.

Add to this medley a large and insatiable pot-smoking population and skyrocketing land prices that push many legitimate growers onto "free" public land, as well as relaxed laws around cannabis cultivation, and it's unsurprising that California has become America's cradle for weed production. In 2015, California accounted for 65 percent of all illegal grows on national forest land across the US, according to the National Forest Service. Domestic drug trafficking organizations manage many of these grows, sending their product to other states where it is still illegal and, ex officio, where profit margins are higher.

But a lot of this marijuana also stays in California.

A typical campsite at an abandoned illegal grow site. Photo: IERC

"11:3:58, which is cultivating marijuana, we call it farming for shorthand," said David Frost, a District Attorney for Monterey County. "The penalty for that is a maximum of three years here in California. It could be sixteen months, two years, or three years."

If guns are involved and it's a federal case, sentences can increase, Frost added. But otherwise, two to three years in a state penitentiary is a pretty small price to pay for a mega-operation with a considerable ecological footprint. And this is assuming there is anyone around when authorities show up.

Having been out in the backcountry for five months or more, the workers tending these farms have perfected their escape routes, according to Mark Sievers, a sergeant at the Monterey County Sheriff's Department, who worked on the "weed team" for many years.

"They hear us long before we get to the garden and so they're gone," Sievers said. "We don't get that many in custody."

Officials survey the deforestation and water diversion of a large illegal marijuana grow in Humboldt County. Photo: Spc. Brianne Roudebush

Not surprisingly, California leads the way in drug trafficking activity. Sixty-one percent of drug trafficking organizations operating on National Forest Service land in the US are in California, according to Forest Service data.

"Most of it is handled locally," said Chris Boehm, the acting director of law enforcement and investigations for the National Forest Service. "The infrastructure, the supply structure, the transport and distribution structure. The product is much easier to produce and in many cases sell [than cocaine]. It lends itself to a whole variety of groups and organizations."

Read more: California to Vote on Wiping Old Weed Arrests

The individuals tending these grows often come from economically vulnerable rungs of society, making them more susceptible to recruitment.

"A lot of them are field workers and are in pretty dire straits. They want to work and make some money," said Charles Lee, a Fresno-based assistant federal defender. "They are told they are going to work on a ranch somewhere remote. They don't even know it's a marijuana grow until they get there and the next they know they're in the middle of nowhere. They don't know the terrain. They don't know the area. They're dropped off and they don't know how to get back to civilization."

Others are forcibly recruited. Bill Abramson, a contract public defender for Plumas County, has heard of cases in which these organizations impel individuals to work by threatening harm against their families.

Many workers aren't even told who they're working for. Information is tightly compartmentalized in order to protect higher ups in the organizations, something that has hamstrung efforts to make any major, penetrating prosecutions.

An illegal poisonous rodenticide commonly used on illegal marijuana grows. Photo: National Forest Service

But irrespective of who is actually running the drug trafficking organizations behind industrial-sized illegal outdoor marijuana grows, they are all bound by the same organizational precept: maximize profits at whatever the cost. That cost has been California's public lands.

"The biggest issue we're facing right now," said Boehm, "are the types of hazardous chemicals that they're bringing in. They're being applied at levels of concentration that are extremely dangerous to the land. Some of these chemicals in certain concentrations will kill you. We've had to adjust our operations to make sure we're not exposing our people to this stuff."

"Some of these chemicals in certain concentrations will kill you. We've had to adjust our operations to make sure we're not exposing our people to this stuff."

Most of these substances are currently banned in the US. They are brought here, in large part, from Mexico. Their effectiveness in maximizing marijuana plant yields is undeniable, but so too is their effectiveness in poisoning the environment.

It's unclear if field hands who apply these chemicals are aware of the long-term ramifications of their work, according to Lee. But focusing on lowly workers would be missing the point, as illegal grows and drug trafficking organizations exist in the first place because there is a black market for illegal marijuana. The same incentives drove organized crime groups during Prohibition in the 1920s and 30s. Those operations were put out of business only after passage of the 21st Amendment, which effectively legalized alcohol consumption across the US.

It's unlikely that statewide legalization of recreational marijuana in California would have the same effect. In fact, the very opposite may be true.

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Mourad's recent findings on Pacific fishers revealed some interesting details about the prevalence of illegal marijuana farms in Oregon. By tracking the overall toxicant levels in fisher carcasses submitted for necropsy over several years, Mourad was able to see if legalizing recreational marijuana in Oregon changed these levels. He was, in essence, able to see if illegal grows decreased post-legalization.

It still might be too early for any kind of resounding conclusions in Oregon, which only legalized recreational marijuana last year. According to Mourad, the toxicant levels found in Pacific fishers in Oregon over the long-term hasn't gone down. "What we're finding right now is that it's either increased or stayed at a very elevated level," he said.

However, Mourad's preliminary findings, which will likely be published early next year, challenge the notion that statewide recreational legalization might eliminate illegal weed grows and, by extension, wide-scale environmental damage occurring on public lands in Oregon and beyond.

Experts and officials in Colorado and Washington, on the other hand, have had more time to analyze the effects of legalizing recreational marijuana since both states passed legalization laws in 2012. Yet that hasn't reduced illegal grows on public land in either of those states, or at least "not at this time," according to Boehm.

"It's all about supply and demand," Boehm said. "There's always a black market for things. I think it's always going to be there unless you can make it completely unprofitable to grow."

Watch Motherboard's 2013 doc on US cannabis legalization and the Silicon Valley of Weed.

After recreational cannabis legalization in Colorado kicked in, many individuals and organizations moved to that state to grow weed under less stringent laws. Indeed, most of the legal weed grown in-state does stay in Colorado. Something similar can also be said for the illegal bud grown in-state, according to Boehm: Many of the big illegal grows run by drug trafficking organizations do move some of their unregulated, pesticide-laden product out of state rather of selling to Colorado dispensaries. But a lot of it stays in Colorado, where it trickles into the above-board supply.

"Colorado and Washington State have legitimated the market but not the production," said Rodrigo Nieto-Gomez, a research professor at the National Security Affairs Department of the Naval Postgraduate School. "The law didn't have enough prohibitions for the production of it. It is still very foggy about where it comes from."

This is a critical lesson for California, one that hasn't gone unnoticed by people like Boehm.

"If the market increases—and I am sure it will, if it's legalized—there'll probably be more people using, which will require more marijuana," Boehm said. "Until the legal capacity gets to where it needs to be, we'll see an increase [of illegal grows] on public lands. I feel pretty confident saying that. Historically that's what's happened, so why would it be any different?"

Unless some form of rigorous and uniform statewide regulation is tucked into whatever legislation accompanies recreational legalization in California—something that has proven difficult in states like Oregon, Colorado, and Washington—neither the amount of illegal grows nor the accompanying environmental damage will abate. And when public lands in California offer a cheaper alternative than private land and come with the benefit of minimal visibility, organizations looking to fly under the radar will likely continue to fill this initial supply shortfall, not to mention the invariable shortfall in states where marijuana is still illegal. This has been the trend in Oregon, Washington, and Colorado since legalization.

Unless some form of rigorous and uniform statewide regulation is tucked into whatever legislation accompanies legalization in California neither the amount of illegal grows nor the accompanying environmental damage will abate.

In other words, warding off illegal grows on public land may seem like a Sisyphean task. But interdiction innovations are in the air.

"I would like to see a very radical interdiction system established to preserve our national parks and forests from illegal grows," Rodrigo said.

By "radical interdiction" Rodrigo means small-fry surveillance drones. He believes there are ways to implement a responsible and transparent program to root out illegal grows using unmanned aerial vehicles. It would have to be a joint effort between civil society organizations and the government, he added, a kind of bottom-up approach to policing our public lands that would require the collaboration of institutions like the Sierra Club, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, as well as the National Park and Forest Services.

Ruling out such hands-on, preemptive initiatives, we are left with post hoc alternatives like cleanups. Assuming Proposition 64 passes, Mourad said he hopes a significant portion of the resulting taxes go toward reclaiming and restoring former illegal grow sites. Only three to four percent of the 1,000 or more sites discovered every year on California's public lands are reclaimed, something generally done on a grant-to-grant basis, according to Mourad.

It remains unclear how California will spend the estimated $1 billion in tax proceeds resulting from Proposition 64. Policy makers have earmarked funding for conservation, yet there is little information elucidating how and where this money will be spent.

Legalizing recreational marijuana in California wouldn't necessarily be the magic bullet against large-scale illegal grows and resulting environmental harm. But if it can be assumed that the ship has already sailed in terms of legalization being a states' rights issue, then statewide legalization is arguably the best way forward to curb illegal, toxic grows in California. If the resulting taxes are utilized to restore damaged land and uniform regulatory standards are applied across the state, the transition will be all the smoother.

A helicopter carries out trash found at an illegal marijuana grow on the Tule River Indian Reservation. Growers were diverting water from the Tule River, the tribe's main source of fresh water. Photo: Spc. Brianne Roudebush/California National Guard

It will take time to streamline and perfect legalization, of course. Progress may initially appear piecemeal. But what we can be certain of is this: Asymmetries and legal loopholes will remain in place that will incentivize and encourage illegal grows in the US unless there is blanket federal legalization. This is exactly where a 'yes' vote on Proposition 64 might serve as a Trojan horse.

California will likely continue to push out unrivaled quantities of both legal and illegal marijuana. This has been the case historically and there is little to stop it now. Given the size of its marijuana market—California produces more weed than all of Mexico—a legal recreational cannabis economy in California would be simply too big to ignore at the federal level. It would underscore the "federalist problem" in the US, according to Rodrigo, where states often act in opposition to the federal government mandates.

Understanding this, a 'yes' vote in California could singlehandedly catalyze change around marijuana at the federal level. If not, it would certainly trigger a domino-like effect toward legalization in other states that are on the fence. Where there has only been increasing environmental destruction and political inertia, this would certainly pressure the federal government to rethink its stance on weed.

In the meantime, Mourad is gearing up for yet another cleanup in Lassen National Forest. Whoever was behind this 30,000-plant operation left behind 8,000 pounds of trash and 8,000 pounds of irrigation line over 15 acres of what was previously pristine public land. When Mourad arrived at the site, he found the rotting corpses of two gray foxes and a bear.

"There needs to be some step forward, anything that is better than what we currently have in place," Mourad said. "What we have in place right now is a knotball that no one has untied."

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