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California Legalization Brings Host of Environmental Rules

December 23, 2017
In this undated photo provided by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, fallen trees lie amid a cannabis farm in the Klamath River watershed, just outside the Yurok Reservation near Klamath, Calif. California cannabis growers choosing to go legal in the new year will face a host of new environmental rules and regulators. A study published earlier this year found that plot for plot, marijuana is more damaging in Northern California’s forests than commercial logging. (California Department of Fish and Wildlife via AP)
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — At a state briefing on environmental rules that await growers entering California’s soon-to-be-legal marijuana trade, organic farmers Ulysses Anthony, Tracy Sullivan and Adam Mernit listened intently, eager to make their humble cannabis plot a model of sustainable agriculture in a notoriously destructive industry dominated by the black market.

In line with a 2017 study that found marijuana grows are more damaging, plot for plot, than commercial logging in Northern California forests, Anthony said he has seen too many destructive grows. Trash-strewn clearings. Growers heaping fertilizer at the foot of a centuries-old sequoia tree, needlessly endangering it. Wild streams diverted for irrigation.

“It really bothers me when I see some of the other operations, the treatment of the land,” he said.

Hopes are that legalization will help rein in environmental damage from black-market grows, much of it in Northern California old-growth forests.

He came from Northern California’s remote Lake County with his two business partners for the state-run seminar on just some of the water regulations that growers must follow when California — the United States’ biggest economy, and biggest producer by far in the underground U.S. cannabis market — legalizes recreational marijuana for licensed and permitted growers and sellers in the New Year.

Complying with water laws alone would mean daily record-keeping, permit applications, inspections and more, state officials said. The three growers took in the volume of new environmental rules but were confident they could comply and be ready to go legal with their 1-acre (4,000-square-meter) farm, said Sullivan, sitting between her two male business partners.

“Oh, yeah, it’ll be possible,” she said. “It’ll just be a longer road” than they expected.


The Future of California Cannabis Depends on Rain

Hopes are that legalization will help rein in environmental damage from black-market grows, much of it in Northern California old-growth forests. But early signs are that only a fraction of growers are applying for permits immediately as recreational marijuana becomes legal here.

At the briefing earlier this month, state regulators and consultants hoping to do business with cannabis farmers notably outnumbered the growers. Rachel Begonia of West Sacramento, one of those consultants, wondered aloud: Where were all the other cannabis growers scrambling to comply with environmental requirements?

As legalization and all of its environmental oversight for farmers who go legal approach in just a few weeks, “either they’ve got it in the bag, or they’re going to try to fly under the radar,” Begonia figured.


In California, Many Growers Will Stay Underground

It’s impossible to know exactly how many growers statewide are planning to go legal, two years after Californians voted to legalize recreational marijuana starting in 2018.

California’s agriculture department just started accepting applications from growers this week, agency spokesman Steve Lyle said. By midweek, it had received fewer than 200 such applications and approved four, Lyle said.

In this undated photo provided by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the remains of a marijuana farm are visible on private land in the Eel River watershed near Willits, Calif. However many of California’s cannabis growers come off the illicit market when recreational marijuana becomes legal here next month, legalization will bring environmental rules and regulators to an previously unregulated industry notorious for bulldozing forest, draining streams, and strewing banned poisons. (California Department of Fish and Wildlife via AP)

In Northern California’s remote and forested Humboldt County, where an estimated 15,000 cannabis farmers grow illicitly now on private lands or in so-called trespass grows on tribal lands and publicly held forests, only 2,300 have applied for the required local growing permits, officials say. Humboldt County anchors a swath of California forests known as the Emerald Triangle, estimated to produce almost two-thirds of U.S. cannabis.

Mourad Gabriel, a wildlife biologist in Humboldt County, has spent years documenting and sounding alarms over the damage that black-market marijuana grows wreak in California’s sloping old-growth forests and virgin streams.


California Releases Applications for Cannabis Cultivation Licenses

A container of pesticide exploded in his face at one grow site, Gabriel said. All of the so-called trespass grows Gabriel has inspected have featured illegal diversions of water and some kind of toxic substances, he said.

That’s often in the form of old soda or water bottles refilled with widely banned poisons, such as carbofuran, and used to keep bugs or rodents from gnawing on drip irrigation lines or plants.

He and colleagues conducted some of the first surveys of lethal poisoning of significant numbers of California’s few hundred remaining fishers, a threatened carnivore. Overall, chemicals at grow sites threaten wildlife ranging from owls to bears to elk, Gabriel said.

He’s skeptical California is bringing strong enough enforcement to bear on environmental infractions.


Leafly Investigation: California Has a Dirty Cannabis Problem

Even if half its growers decide to go legal, California will still have numerous farms that flout the rules, Gabriel said. “If even a fraction have pesticide and water use … that’s a concern. A definite concern.”

California’s Department of Pesticide Regulation is adding about 10 toxicologists and other scientists to its staff of 400 to deal with the industry, said Jesse Cuevas, assistant director of programs. “It’s not too often we get a multibillion-dollar industry regulated overnight,” Cuevas said.

Since marijuana remains illegal under federal law and California’s list of allowed bug, mold and rat killers is tied to federal law, no conventional poisons are specifically approved for California cannabis growers. Pot farmers will be allowed only a limited number of conventional pesticides and those associated with organic farming such as cinnamon oil, citronella or traps.

Cannabis sold legally in the state must be tested first for pesticides and other dangers.


California Releases Emergency Cannabis Regulations

California’s wildlife department has added about 100 law enforcement officers, scientists and others to deal with the marijuana industry, said Nathaniel Arnold, a deputy chief of law enforcement for the agency.

State and local water boards are adding just under 100 staffers to deal with the industry’s water problems, which include contaminating and destroying waterways, said Clint Snyder, assistant executive officer of one regional water board.

Snyder expects many in the black market to wait and see how things go for the first legal growers, like the Lake County business partners.

Ideally, as in the years after Prohibition, trust and market forces will bring growers out of their hideouts in vulnerable hills and forests, and onto the valley floors with the rest of California’s farmers.

“The current status quo is unacceptable, and it’s very damaging to the environment,” Cuevas said. “Any step to regulate the industry is a step in the right direction.”

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  • Snegurochka

    Hint: That’s not an old growth forest in either of the pictures.

    • E.L. Bl/Du

      some places in N calif do NOT have large trees in their old growth forests. SIZE does not always indicate the age of the forest. Along the Klamath River, there are trees sthat dont grow anywhere else in the world, and they are not huge, but very old growth, they are protected. Either way, this practice is DISGUSTING. ITs happening in Oregon also, and severe damage to the streams and the wildlife by dumping chemical fertilziers where they do NOT belong. ITs been a very big problem esp w/ illegal grows (by illegals.) THey dont give a dam about our forests. On hikes, I see all kinds of garbage they just leave behind (with spanish writing on it) Not to mention the dangers of getting close to a cartel grow. They KILL people on hikers that get too close. Its a HUGE problem

      • HumboldtBiologist

        Please name one tree species that only occurs in the Klamath watershed. I will wait…

        • E.L. Bl/Du

          what about the Shasta red Fir? I cant remember the name of it but there is a plaque from the forest service that names these specific trees along the highway, Ive seen it and the “specialized ” grove they sit in. Klamath river also shares space with many natives, inculding common juniper (Juniperus communis), sometimes called dwarf juniper
          incense cedar
          white fir
          subalpine fir
          Shasta red fir
          Brewers spruce
          Engelmanns spruce
          whitebark pine
          knobcone pine
          foxtail pine
          Jeffrey pine
          lodgepole pine
          mountain hemlock
          sugar pine
          ponderosa pine
          western white pine
          Douglas fir
          Pacific yew
          About 450 other plant species. HOws that for a start?

          • HumboldtBiologist

            These are all common tree species found throughout California. “Along the Klamath River, there are trees sthat dont grow anywhere else in the world” Shasta Red Fir is found throughout Northern California. Brewer’s spruce is rare but can be found along the coast around King’s Range. I agree with your general stance but don’t spread misinformation.

          • E.L. Bl/Du

            look, Im not a tree “biologist” like you claim to be, but I have SEEN THE grove MYSELF. Along the river highway, going towards Happy Camp there is a grove of trees that grows NOwhere ELSE IN THE WORLD. Just like in Port Orford, they have Port Orford Cedar that grows Nowhere else in the world.. IM sorry I dont have the EXACT GENUS NAME, but It is NOT false information, I know becasue Ive seen this grove and the Forest Service Plaque telling the story of these trees. Excuse me for not being as smart as you and knowing EVERY tree’s name, but I know they exist becasue Ive seen it with my own eyes. You dont need to get nasty about it.

          • HumboldtBiologist

            I’m not being nasty at all. You are wrong and getting very defensive, settle down. I’m just trying to help. Shasta Red Fir can be found in the Sierra Nevada’s although it is very rare. Here is a link to the Calflora map that has recorded sightings of this species that are not near the Klamath River. Port Orford Cedar can easily be found in Humboldt and Del Norte County, California. I’ve seen them myself along the Mad River. But listen, just because they are not endemic it does not mean they don’t have ecological importance.

          • E.L. Bl/Du

            I guess confrontational or snobby naval gazer is a better description of your replies to me. You completely doubted I saw this grove and told me not to spread lies, (which is completely disrespectful.) and that what I was was saying I SAW is complete BS and to stop spreading it. Frankly I think your kind of a jerk about it. Port Orford cedar got its name because thats where it is from, thats where it grows naturally, if someone planted it near Sierra nevada good for them, I could give a shit. I just dont like being called a liar when I have seen, READ and viewed the trees that this plaque by the FOREST SERVICE posted and stated these tress grow NOWHERE ELSE IN THE WORLD NATURALLY. You want to argue and argue about it, and Im sick of it. I KNOW what I saw, so just stay in your world and argue with everyone and anyone who has an opinion that you have no knowledge of. Just b/c you dont know about it doenst make it a lie or untrue. You are a complete jerk about it. So calm down yourself, YOU are the one making up stories, just because you dont know about it. You are NO expert in my eyes. AT ALL! My husband is an arborist, and neither one of us can remember the name of that grove, so we will just have to go on a trip this summer. Problem is, they wont allow photos to post so I have no way of PROVING it to your doubting thomas brain and eyes. I really do NOt want to continue this converstaion, You are obviously so closed minded you have to insult ppl to be right and you’re not.

  • HumboldtBiologist

    For being a pro-cannabis website/publication you sure interview the most biased side of this argument. CDFW is biased against cannabis cultivation in Humboldt, Trinity, and Mendocino counties. “Even if half its growers decide to go legal, California will still have numerous farms that flout the rules, Gabriel said. “If even a fraction have pesticide and water use … that’s a concern. A definite concern.” So he rather we continue the same regime, where illegal farms flourish with no enforcement instead of implement rules and attempt to enforce bad actors amongst good actors. What Gabriel does not infer is marijuana cultivation is not inherently detrimental to the environment. In its current embodiment as the medical/black market it is extremely impactful. But they have been trying to tame it since the 80’s (almost 40 years) with no luck. But cannabis can be grown with little water use and no pesticides. He just has never seen a grow like that because he visits all the nasty ones. I wish Leafly would step up their game.