Large Scale Pot Production Concerns Humboldt Community
By KRISTAN KORNS, Two Rivers Tribune
Marijuana in Humboldt County has gone from small “mom and pop” hippie grows to industrial-scale operations, and the environmental effects are devastating said researchers at Humboldt State University’s Humboldt Institute for Interdisciplinary Marijuana Research (HIIMR).
Researchers from HIIMR and the HSU Sociology Department were joined on Friday, Oct. 12, by environmental activists and policy makers to discuss the environmental challenges of marijuana agriculture.
Scott Downey, a senior environmental scientist supervisor with the California Department of Fish and Game, said, “People in other areas think its just a few hippies growing a few plants. They have no idea.”
Gary Hughes, executive director of the Environmental Protection Information Council (EPIC), said, “People can’t put their heads in the sand on this issue. Massive amounts of toxics are going out into the landscape.”
The toxic chemicals entering the water supply include large amounts of fertilizers, plant hormones, spilled diesel fuel from generators and water pumps, and even rat poisons.
Pacific fishers, a rare type of weasel, have been killed by anticoagulant rodenticides which cause them to bleed out and die. The rodenticides are used by marijuana growers to protect their crops.
In one case, a 2,000 plant marijuana plantation was discovered by wildlife researchers in the Mill Creek watershed in the forest near Hoopa. The area is a Pacific fisher habitat, and hundreds of gallons of banned rat poisons and other chemicals were found there.
“It was one of those guerilla grows,” Sheriff Mike Downey said, “We didn’t identify any suspects, but based on what they left behind we’re assuming they were Mexican nationals.”
Endangered species of fish, like the Coho salmon, are also being harmed by the chemical runoff from marijuana plantations, and are especially sensitive to lower water levels caused by diversion for agriculture.
Scott Downey said, “With a 40,000 square foot grow, we’re looking at a million and a half gallons of water needed. Coho salmon are in direct competition with the marijuana plants for water.”
Scott Greacen, executive director of the Friends of the Eel, said, “We put generations of sacrifice and investment into bringing back our salmon runs, but right now water diversions really threaten to slam the door on salmon recovery.”
Humboldt County 3rd District Supervisor Mark Lovelace said he saw the escalating scale of the problem during a fly-over of the Van Duzen, Mad River and Redwood Grove watersheds.
“In the course of two hours we counted 439 grows,” Lovelace said, “and that was just what we could see from the plane.”
Scott Downey even discovered a marijuana grow on his own land.
“They do not respect property values,” he said. “If you’re living there year round, you’re probably not going to be invaded. But if no one’s there, they’ll just set up shop and go for it.”
These types of ‘trespass grows’ are becoming more common on both public and private lands.
Several Hoopa residents who were hunting or engaged in traditional gathering activities reported run-ins with armed people guarding illegal marijuana plantations in the hills.
“They’re coming to use our resources with only one thing in mind – making a profit and getting out of here,” Scott Downey said.
District Attorney Paul Gallegos said, “The problem is we haven’t regulated it.”
He said the logging industry is highly regulated, with mandated buffer zones along watersheds, to prevent the type of environmental problems being caused by marijuana cultivation.
“Each individual grow may not be an environmental catastrophe,” Gallegos said. “But with enough of them out there, you’re starting to get a situation that’s like a million paper cuts.”
“It’s tough with it being legal in California but not legal federally. We talked to US Attorney Melina Haag and she sent a letter threatening to prosecute us for trying to regulate marijuana,” Gallegos said.
Without any federal legal protections for growers who follow safe environmental practices, growers don’t have any incentives to protect the environment.
Casey O’Neill, a farmer from nearby Mendocino County, said marijuana should be regulated like alcohol and sold on the open market.
“If we can reward the people who are producing in a quality manner, then we could easily deal with the people who are running amok,” O’Neill said.
Lovelace said that marijuana prohibition is not going to be changing any time soon.
“The ability to have a meaningful discussion of this as a legitimate policy issue really ends as soon as you get out of Humboldt County,” Lovelace said, “People are not ready nationally.”
No matter what happens on a state or national level about ending or continuing marijuana prohibition, the environmental problems from unregulated and unsafe growing operations will continue to be felt in Humboldt County.
Gallegos said that protecting the environment was his primary goal, not eradicating marijuana.
“If you’re draining water out of our rivers in summer, you’re killing our fish,” Gallegos said. “You’re also killing our dogs when they go drink water filled with green algae.”