PD Editorial: Fighting illegal cannabis grows on public land

Illicit marijuana farms don’t just lay waste to the environment. They undermine the legal cannabis industry.|

California has two sources of marijuana - a voter-approved network of licensed growers, quality control labs and retailers, and illicit growers responsible for tremendous environmental harm.

At one site in Trinity County, described in Monday's paper, deputies found thousands of pounds of trash, more than 3 miles of plastic irrigation piping and a banned neurotoxicant that has been linked to the deaths of spotted owls, mountain lions and other wildlife (“Rogue pot farm pollution ‘a time bomb'”).

Prohibitionists might try to blame such grows on states like California that have legalized marijuana, but people who live near national forests and other public lands know that illegal grows predate legalization. Criminals have been growing marijuana in the woods for a long time. In 2012, federal agents found 471 sites in national forests across 20 states.

Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, wants Congress to deal with illegal grows on federal land.

These illicit marijuana farms don't just lay waste to the environment. They undermine the legal cannabis industry. The legal market is worth more than $3 billion, but the illegal market remains worth almost three times as much. As a result, legal cannabis isn't generating the tax revenue that supporters had hoped. And consumers of illegal products don't find the same quality control as the legal market has.

For black market growers, maximizing output requires clearcutting trees and applying chemicals to keep weeds and animals at bay. Those chemicals get into soil and waterways, leaving long-term damage after growers leave or are shut down.

Worse, the toxins can flow downstream into farming and ranching communities, disrupting local economies. That is if the water ever makes it downstream. Grows take water from the aquifer meant for other uses. Indeed, experts say illegal growers are diverting 9 billion gallons of water annually - enough to supply 35,000 homes.

In the end, cleanup and remediation can cost tens of thousands of dollars per site, if it's possible at all.

Huffman, whose district runs from the Bay Area to the Oregon border, knows these problems well. His district contains heavily wooded public lands ripe for abuse by illegal growers. He and his constituents have experienced the worst of what can happen for years.

“We've seen firsthand how illegal grow operations threaten visitors to our public lands, steal water and contaminate streams and kill wildlife on a landscape scale,” Huffman said.

Which is why he introduced bipartisan legislation to crack down on illegal grows. The Protecting Lands Against Narcotics Trafficking Act would establish penalties for environmental damage caused by illegal grows on federal lands or while trespassing on private land. That would be on top of the penalties for illegally growing cannabis in the first place.

The penalties will make illegally growing cannabis riskier, but they can only work if law enforcement has the resources to catch people. There are millions of acres of federal land out there and too few agents to patrol all of it. If Congress truly wants to crack down on this problem, it also must come up with money to make sure that grows never make it to harvest.

Congress chronically underfunds federal lands, but surely lawmaker can coalesce around a bipartisan opportunity to support law enforcement, target illegal drugs and protect precious natural resources.

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