There have been a number of reports on environmental damage in California caused by marijuana cultivation. The issue centers on problems of water use and pollution created by irresponsible farmers, especially illegal grows on public lands.
Compounded by the drought in California, this issue has reached the point where at least one county has drastically restricted outdoor grows. The severity of this problem should not be understated, but the reasons for it and solutions to it are not nearly as cut-and-dry as some might lead you to believe.
It should be noted that negative environmental impacts are not unique, nor even directly related to the marijuana plant. Rather, they are a product of bad cultivation practices, which exist primarily due to a regulatory vacuum created by prohibition.
Because marijuana production is still illegal at the federal level, and only quasi-allowed under California’s medical marijuana law, some farmers grow their products clandestinely on public lands to avoid law enforcement and thieves. In these cases, a lack of responsibility for the land and fear of discovery leads unaccountable farmers to cut corners at the expense of the environment.
Federal prohibition also prevents the creation of a clear regulatory framework for production even for farmers who want to play by state rules. This stymies counties from working with those farmers who are following state law to establish best practices. Prohibition also prevents market transparency, which means consumers can’t effectively vote with their money for responsible farmers who make a point to grow sustainably and organically.
Legalization would substantially mitigate these environmental problems by allowing for the widespread adoption and enforcement of environmental regulations. We regulate all legal industries, but marijuana’s situation is unique because it has been illegal for so long. This presents a real opportunity to create simple, enforceable regulations that protect the land while giving farmers a clear framework to build and innovate.
Most industries view regulations as pure impediments, but smart marijuana cultivation principles (which some farmers are already advocating for) could set a new bar for sustainable production by reinforcing the co-dependent relationship between business and the environment.
Perhaps someday soon we can spend our efforts thinking of ways business can enhance the environment, instead of just preventing it from doing damage.
Aaron Juchau is an intern for the Drug Policy Alliance.