If you consume cannabis this weekend, you might also be killing fish, clear-cutting forest, and poisoning some cute-faced and endangered members of the weasel family.
That’s one takeaway from new report in the journal BioScience, which details the water-guzzling, land-destroying, pollution-spreading reality of the marijuana farming today.
The work is the most comprehensive effort to date to quantify the environmental costs of serving the country’s millions of regular marijuana users. Among the degradation recorded: diverted streams, displaced plant-life, spilled diesel fuel, reckless use of fertilizers, and dead Pacific fishers (those cute weasels).
Because most marijuana consumed in America is grown here, the research adds a green front to the moral and social battle over broader legalization. Because marijuana growers are understandably secretive, however, the scope of their work is hard to measure, and easy to get wrong.
The only certainty is that this research—which did not distinguish between illegal and state-sanctioned growers—won’t be the last word on their impacts, or its relevance to the push for legalization. Softer pot laws have already swept through 23 states in one form or another, and attitudes are changing fast.
For the moment, people tend to argue over what’s best for kids, minorities, sick people, drivers, and the economy at large. Now, they might also have to consider the policy that favors fish, furry animals, forests, streams, and the majesty of nature.
Predictably, both the pro-and-anti legalization sides see the study as an ally.
Kevin Sabet, for example, is the president of Project SAM, a campaign to keep marijuana illegal and address the failings of the drug war through other means. He instantly turned the study into a new weapon and let fire.
“Everyone thinks that weed is harmless to use, when in reality our earth is very much affected by its production,” he told msnbc. “The only answer to this environmental problem is to reduce our hunger for pot. And that doesn't happen under legalization.”
Marijuana growers (and, one imagines, marijuana consumers) can just as easily fold the research into their own point of view. They don’t deny that marijuana is a growing threat to the environment, but they attribute that destruction to the perversions of prohibition.
Hezekiah Allen is executive director of the Emerald Growers Association, a trade group that represents state-sanctioned growers in northern California.
“Unregulated commercial agriculture is bound to have more significant impacts than regulated agriculture,” he told msnbc. “The simple solution is that 18 years after California has a legal medical cannabis industry, it’s time for the state to regulate that industry.”
The research was led by the Nature Conservancy, with help from environmental scientists at UC Berkeley and California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife. Their own conclusions tended to the growers point of view. They noted “inherent trade-offs and tension between marijuana cultivation and ecosystem needs,” but also pointed out that new policies could “prevent and mitigate” the current level of damage.
Earlier this spring, msnbc visited a pot farm in northern California to see a model of sustainable growing, in an industry that suddenly needs one. Casey O’Neill and his brother Nathaniel are third-generation cannabis growers in the famed Emerald Triangle, and co-owners of Happy Day Farms.
Before the drought, the O'Neill brothers invested their life savings in two artificial ponds, which now hold about 2 million gallons of captured rainwater. They also installed solar panels, which power their whole grown, and they continued to rely on only natural fertilizers.
Now they’re trying to spread the good word. They believe that the quickest way to clean up the trade may be to legalize it. That would allow farmers to openly trade best practices, and regulators to easily find those who don’t adopt them, they argue.
“We can be fish-friendly and still produce this incredible economic bounty that comes from the sun through human labor,” said Casey. “It’s the translation of solar dollars into real dollars. And that’s something that we are very honor to participate in.”