A fascinating and frightening look at pot growers’ environmental impacts

Marijuana cultivation in California leads to illegal water diversions amounting to some 60 million gallons a year, "50 percent more than is used by all the residents of San Francisco."

It has been a long time since I pictured California’s pot growers romantically, as small-time devotees of organic agriculture rather than big-money gangs whose practices run to the paramilitary.

Still, it was an eye-popping experience to read the new Mother Jones investigative feature on “The Landscape-Scarring, Energy-Sucking, Wildlife-Killing Reality of Pot Farming: This your wilderness on drugs.” Excerpt:

To meet demand, researchers say, the acreage dedicated to marijuana grows in the Emerald Triangle has doubled in the past five years. Like the Gold Rush of the mid-1800s, this “green rush,” as it is known locally, has brought great wealth at a great cost to the environment.

Whether grown in bunkers lit with pollution-spewing diesel generators, or doused with restricted pesticides and sown on muddy, deforested slopes that choke off salmon streams during the rainy season, this “pollution pot” isn’t exactly high quality, or even a quality high.

“The cannabis industry right now is in sort of the same position that the meatpacking industry was in before ‘The Jungle’ was written by Upton Sinclair,” says Stephen DeAngelo, the founder of Oakland’s Harborside Health Center, a large medical marijuana dispensary. “It simply isn’t regulated, and the upshot is that nobody really knows what’s in their cannabis.”

The heart of the MoJo package is a ride-along feature by Josh Harkinson, who accompanied two armed and insistently anonymous U.S. Forest Service agents to a cleanup operation at a “trespass grow” on federal land that had been spotted from the air and raided back in August.

… Amid a scattering of garbage bags disemboweled by animals, we find the growers’ tarps and eight dingy sleeping bags, the propane grill where they had cooked oatmeal for breakfast, and the backpack sprayers they used to douse the surrounding 50 acres with chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The air smells faintly of ammonia and weed.

“This is unicorns and rainbows, isn’t it?” says Mourad Gabriel, a former University of California-Davis wildlife ecologist who has joined us at the site, as he maniacally stuffs a garbage bag with empty booze bottles, Vienna Beef sausage tins, and Miracle-Gro refill packs.

Threats and a poisoned pet

For publishing his name on a 2012 scientific paper about how pot growers’ heavy use of rat poison was pushing California fishers toward federal endangered-species protection, Gabriel saw his address and pictures of himself and family posted on websites, and not in a friendly way. There were threats, and recently somebody killed one of his dogs with meat that had been treated with rat poison.

Unlike Gabriel’s dog, California’s fishers and other wildlife — including black bears and the northern spotted owl — aren’t being poisoned directly. They’re feeding on rats that have eaten poison the growers lay out to protect seedlings.

Other impacts: Illegal water diversions amounting to some 60 million gallons a year, “50 percent more than is used by all the residents of San Francisco.” That’s by California’s outdoor growers, who produce 72 percent of their weed from trespass grows on public land. Indoor growers, meanwhile, use a lot less water but account for about 9 percent of the state’s household electricity use to power all those grow lights.

If this makes you feel relief at living in the land of the polar vortex and a short growing season, think again.

MoJo assures us that Minnesota will eventually have a direct stake in pot farming’s poor environmental profile, because public opinion trends make eventual legalization everywhere a question of when, not whether.  (About five months ago another MoJo writer, Kevin Drum, read recent polling by Gallup and others to mean legalization in a majority of states can be expected by 2020.)

Coming to Minnesota, someday

Climate factors mean only that a Minnesota marijuana industry would likely rely on indoor growing, as in Colorado’s newly legal enterprises. That presents a different regulatory challenge than the backwoods operations in the triangle of California’s Humboldt, Trinity and Mendocino counties, but it certainly doesn’t erase the environmental impacts.

Drawing heavily on research by Evan Mills, a staff scientist and energy analyst at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, among other sources, MoJo offers these calculations among its “24 Mind-Blowing Facts about Marijuana Production in America”:

  • Growing four pot plants indoors typically requires as much electricity as 29 refrigerators.
  • Nationwide, pot-growing draws enough voltage to power 1.7 million homes — the combined production of seven large power plants.
  • For every pound grown indoors, 4,600 pounds of globe-warming CO2 goes into the atmosphere.

Seeking to know a little bit more about Mills and his work, I navigated to his original, peer-reviewed paper published in April 2012 and also to a page of discussion he posted about the press coverage it had inspired. (In both documents he stressed above all that his research on pot’s energy profile was a personal project that had no relation to his federal employment.)

Both documents are rife with similarly interesting and often jaw-dropping statistics, but unlike the MoJo project, Mills offered some context, comparing the electricity demands of indoor pot production to those of some other industrial enterprises.

In terms of energy consumed per thousand dollars of shipment value, indoor pot growing’s consumption of 19,000 BTUs outpaced paper production (14,000), nonmetallic mineral products (9,000), petroleum and coal products (6,000) and chemicals (5,000).

Looking just at the pharmaceuticals sector, Mills found that “Energy represents 1% of the value of pharmaceutical shipments and 20-50% of the value of cannabis wholesale prices. The U.S. ‘pharma’ sector uses $1 billion/year of energy; indoor cannabis uses $5 billion.”

Also, “Cannabis production requires 8 times as much energy per square foot as a typical U.S. commercial building (4x that of a hospital and 20x that of a building for religious worship), and 18 times that of an average U.S. home.”

Can legalization bring reform?

Pushback to the MoJo piece has been swift, predictable and impolite. Many commenters pointed out that legal agriculture in California creates its share of environmental problems, too, from fertilizer runoff and pesticide drift to wasteful water use. I thought that was a fair point and one that should have been addressed.

Others, though, ripped Harkinson for blaming all of this destructive behavior on the growers rather than on the drug laws — always referenced as “prohibition” — that force them into shadowy backcountry operations instead of, say, a tidy little spread in the Central Valley.

Various experts and at least some small-time growers say that if marijuana becomes fully legal to grow and consume in California, those backwoods operations will indeed move from the Emerald Triangle to somewhere near Salinas and operate just like the outfits that send us our almonds, garlic and salad greens. Some of them are quoted in the MoJo piece, including on optimist who sees legal pot as a route to rebirth for the small family farm.

But I think it’s not nearly that simple, because such a transition would instantly require today’s growers to start paying for their land and water, instead of simply using the public’s land and water in locations that are too remote to police. Then there would be all the licensing, training and inspection requirements.

These are people willing to risk federal prison time for drug violations, and we think they’re going to refrain from using pesticides in a manner inconsistent with their labeling?

On the plus side, growing pot in the open might mean a shorter commute and a lowered anxiety factor for some of today’s outlaws. But as Harkinson points out, the owners of Emerald Triangle operations are often ex-loggers accustomed to living and working a long ways from the Golden Gate, and they already turn over most of the hands-on work to undocumented workers from Mexico.

Often, these are the only people around when the raiding party shows up; the owners are busy at home, counting and spending the money.

And the money is almost unfathomable. You’ve probably already heard that pot is the highest value single crop in California — old news, that. But I admit I did a double-take when I read that the $31 billion in annual revenue now ascribed to pot production is greater than the combined value of the next 10 commodities from California farms.

So I wonder: Why should any of today’s successful growers see legalization as a path to anything but higher costs, harder work and a long slide downward from their lofty estate?

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by charles thompson on 03/19/2014 - 08:23 am.

    Assuming all these claims are true, they point to the need for legal, regulated, tax paying growers. The tenor of this and other weed related articles on Minnpost point out the retro language and attitudes that persist. It is not the dope fiends who cause most of the trouble in the world. It’s down to the zealots and the drunks.

  2. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 03/19/2014 - 08:31 am.

    It’s not just in California:


    From 2010


    From 2012


  3. Submitted by Jon Lord on 03/19/2014 - 10:20 am.

    regulations are

    Usually the bane of Republicans. This is a great example of why we need more regulations and not less in order to keep our population healthy. This article does a great job of pointing out the dangers of unfettered free enterprise.

  4. Submitted by Robert McManus on 03/19/2014 - 11:07 am.

    You know, this is all really bad stuff to have happening. Too bad people are already poisoning us all with their lawn chemicals in a useless and futile, society-wide lawn grass farming escapade. And too bad we’re busy destroying our only home, making the prospect of humanity’s survival bleak.

    Okay, so with that off my chest, I’ll say what I said in the comments section of Mother Jones. If it were legal to grow in our back yards alongside our tomatoes, or for an entrepreneurial nursery owner to use his skills and equipment to grow a nice cash crop, all this bad crap engendered by the drug war and nurtured by all the nervous ninnies who listen only to what the authorities say would go away. One doesn’t see illegal barley-growing operations in the parks, does one? Nor does one see stories about all the environmental costs(which are no doubt extreme) of brewing and distilling.

    Marijuana growing and consumption is the least of our worries, whether it be legal or not. But I say legalize it, totally, like the beefsteaks and green zebras that will soon be gracing my garden.

    • Submitted by Lisa Perry on 03/19/2014 - 01:54 pm.

      Excellent point

      You have an excellent point regarding back yard growing. It seems that our society is more amenable to environmental destruction when it is perpetrated by profit driven corporations such as those related to energy and mining operations engaged in fracking.

  5. Submitted by Terry Gips on 03/20/2014 - 03:13 pm.

    California Low – Thanks for the Excellent Article

    Thanks so much for your excellent article Ron. I’ve been seeing so many news pieces about what’s been happening with marijuana growing in Colorado but hadn’t been aware of the challenges in California. It’s real bummer to hear about the environmental and health impacts (from the hazardous pesticides). I guess one good thing if it were legalized is that there could be certified organic production.

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