Pubdate: Thu, 24 Oct 2013
Source: Sacramento News & Review (CA)
Copyright: 2013 Chico Community Publishing, Inc.
Author: David Downs
Note: A version of this story was originally featured in the East Bay 
Express at


Feds and the Media Say Cannabis Kills Forests, Rivers and Animals. Is 
Prohibition Really to Blame?

The Photo Looks Like Something Out of a Horror Film:

A long, thin animal lays dissected on a white table. Metal tools pull 
the animal's skin back to reveal its jellied, maroon-colored 
insides-all soupy, slick and lumpy. It's the remains of a Pacific 
fisher, an 8-pound member of the weasel family that's now hovering 
near extinction, thanks in part to illegal marijuana farming in the 
vast forests of California.

Fishers eat forest mice, and forest mice nibble the green stalks of 
still-maturing pot plants. So illicit growers, who toil deep inside 
California's forests, spread powerful rodenticides-rat poison-on the 
ground near their cannabis crops. The mice eat the poisonous 
anti-coagulants, get sick, and then the fishers eat the mice. Soon 
after, the furry forest weasels are melting from the inside out.

Mourad Gabriel, a UC Davis doctoral student who has been researching 
the health of fishers across the state, showed me the photo, which he 
took as part of several years of research on the animal. Gabriel's 
studies show that about 86 percent of fishers in California have been 
exposed to rodenticides, and that the percentage has been increasing 
in recent years.

The habitat range for fishers also overlaps nearly perfectly with 
known illegal marijuana grows on public and private lands in the 
state. Called "trespass grows," they've been found in medium-to 
old-growth forests in remote areas that range in elevation from sea 
level up to 6,000 feet, including the foothills and forests near Sacramento.

Hard-line drug warriors here and Washington, D.C., along with 
environmental groups and the media, have seized upon Gabriel's work 
this year. And, largely because of him, the Pacific fisher has become 
the 2013 mascot for environmental degradation wrought by pot farming.

But some Northern California officials who are on the frontlines of 
combating trespass grows say they're only a symptom of a much larger 
problem: the drug war itself. Blame pot-or blame the war on pot?

"My jaw dropped when I saw that study," said Brad Henderson, who 
plans habitat conservation for the California Department of Fish and 
Wildlife, referring to Gabriel's research.

In one study of 58 dead fishers, 79 percent had been exposed to 
rodenticides, and four died as a direct result of the anti-coagulants.

Gabriel also documented the first incidence of a mother fisher 
transferring the poison to her offspring through her milk.

In another study, a male fisher was found dead in a marijuana 
trespass grow on July 31, with a pesticide-laden hot dog still in his 
throat. (The fisher didn't choke on the hot dog. He was poisoned by 
an insecticide "associated with a marijuana cultivation site," 
Gabriel wrote in one of his studies.

"It means there's no place safe for wildlife in California," 
Henderson explained. "You can go way into the backcountry, and you 
got anti-coagulant in predators."

New federal laws in the works would stiffen fines for trespass grows. 
State officials are also assembling a 40-agency task force to tackle 
the problem.

And the media-including Mother Jones, The New York Times and the 
Associated Press-has piled on with coverage of the environmental 
dangers posed by trespass farms, including dead fishers; fish kills 
in streams sucked dry by pot growing; illegal logging, grading and 
chemical use; and the lack of erosion controls.

"I think it has reached a fever pitch," said Gabriel of the news 
coverage. "I think it's an escalating fever. We haven't hit the top 
of it. We're just scratching the surface. The more we scratch, the 
higher that fever is going to climb."

In fact, an increasing number of law-enforcement officials in the 
state and throughout the nation are now pointing to the environmental 
destruction caused by trespass grows as justification for continuing 
the war on drugs and increasing government spending to stamp out 
marijuana production.

Amplified by a willing national media, the environmental harms caused 
by pot have become "the new reefer madness," said well-known 
marijuana historian Dominic Corva.

Others say the war on drugs itself is to blame for the environmental 
damage wrought by cannabis grows.

Butte County Supervisor Bill Connelly, a conservative who describes 
himself as "definitely not an environmentalist," shares this belief. 
He contends that ramping up the war on pot because of trespass grows 
will ultimately fail to either eradicate the farms or protect Mother 
Nature. As a result, he's calling for the legalization of marijuana 
nationwide, joining a cadre of unlikely advocates on the right, 
including current Humboldt County Sheriff Mike Downey.

They argue that if pot becomes legal, then marijuana production will 
come out of the shadows and into the light, where pot will be grown 
legitimately on traditional farms like other crops. At that point, 
there'll be no need for growers to head deep into the woods to 
produce weed and poison animals.

Although cannabis remains illegal under federal law, Americans 
consume an estimated 2,500 to 5,000 metric tons of marijuana each 
year, according to estimates from the RAND Drug Policy Research 
Center. About 30 million Americans smoke or eat cannabis products 
annually, and about 6 million people use pot daily. Weed is the 
second-most popular recreational substance in the nation, behind alcohol.

Two-thirds of the pot consumed in the United States comes from 
Mexico, while about one-fifth of it is grown domestically, according 
to RAND estimates. California produces more weed than any other 
state, and according to a 2010 Central Valley California High 
Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program report, may account for as 
much as 79 percent of all domestically grown marijuana.

The federal drug war also has had a huge impact on Northern 
California, said Corva, a Sarah Lawrence College professor who spent 
several years in Humboldt County doing an ethnographic history of pot 
growing, and now also runs a cannabis-cultivation think tank in 
Seattle. Big swaths of this region were ravaged and abandoned by 
logging in the 19th and 20th centuries, and then some of those areas 
were resettled by back-to-the-land hippies in the 1970s, Corva said. 
Many liberal activists had dropped out of society after the upheavals 
of the 1960s, and for them, dope was just another plant in the garden.

Today, $1 out of every $4 in Humboldt County's economy can be traced 
to the weed industry, and the area's rise to dominance in marijuana 
production can be traced directly to the drug war.

Make no mistake: People grow pot for the money-either to save cash by 
growing what they personally need or to make money by selling it 
themselves, exporting it to other states, or cultivating it for 
medical-pot collectives. Americans spend an estimated $15 billion to 
$30 billion per year on weed. The value of the nation's cannabis per 
square foot is five-times greater than that of poppies or coca, 
according to RAND.

Currently, a pound of Mexican marijuana costs $50 in Mexico, $500 
when it crosses the border, and up to $1,400 by the time it reaches 
New York. And a pound of high-grade California indoor-grown marijuana 
sells for $2,000 here and for $4,000 on the East Coast.

Research shows that traffickers make about $1 for every mile they 
drive east from California. But that figure doesn't reflect the 
actual cost of producing marijuana; rather, it reflects the risk 
involved in doing so. As much as 90 percent of the cost of pot is its 
risk premium, according to RAND. About 750,000 people are arrested 
annually for violating marijuana laws, and 40,000 people are in state 
or federal prison for it. In 2010, the government seized roughly 10 
million outdoor plants.

Corva said raising the price of drugs was one of the chief goals of 
the drug war. The thinking was: Price increases would dissuade 
impoverished users. What actually happened is the potential for 
intense profits drew the impoverished into the drug trade.

Today, pot is one of the top 15 cash crops in the United States, RAND 
reports. And it's no longer confined to just Northern California. 
There are black-market plantations hiding throughout the state's 20 
million acres of national forest, as well as in large tracts of 
private and tribal lands.

Media portrayals of marijuana farming over the decades typically 
focused on the guns and violence associated with drug cartels. But in 
2013, environmental harms became the central focus of the war on pot. 
'We don't grow tomatoes in Yosemite'

 From above, the forests of Northern California appear to have chicken pox.

Patches of rusty-colored boils dot the rugged, sun-beaten timberlands 
of southern Humboldt County. Swooping down into the region from the 
God's-eye view provided by Google Earth, the rusty patches expand to 
reveal clear-cut hilltops.

Humboldt State University environmental sociologist Anthony Silvaggio 
counts 600 of these patches covering the southern section of the 
county, each one centered over bald mountaintops arrayed with outdoor 
pot plants and greenhouses.

"And that's not all of them. ... There are hundreds more," he said.

Zooming in and out on each site on his computer, Silvaggio noted how 
the farms are collectively sucking fragile watersheds dry. Then 
there's the illegal logging and the rampant use of animal 
poisons-plus insecticides, herbicides, fungicides and high-nutrient 
fertilizers. When the fall and winter rains come, uncontrolled 
erosion follows. A toxic brew of chemicals and dirt washes downhill 
into protected areas like the Eel River.

The destruction is happening all across California now.

Created in November 2012, Silvaggio's research video got picked up by 
Mother Jones in February of this year and retitled "Google Earth 
Reveals Devastation Caused by Marijuana Growers." A story by The New 
York Times followed. The Associated Press piled on, and Dan Rather 
recently toured the region in a helicopter for a report on AXS TV.

In Butte County, Supervisor Connelly takes reporters to trespass 
grows on steep, 45-degree hillsides on private land. The illegal 
farms are studded with denuded trees and littered with poisons and 
fertilizers. During one tour, he looked downhill and described the 
fall rains sweeping it all-the chemicals and the toxic soil-down into 
the creeks, rivers and lakes.

"It definitely has gone up in the last few years," he said of the 
number of trespass grows.

But are the impacts from pot-growing larger, or are we just paying 
more attention to them? The answer appears to be both.

As far back as 1983, the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting made 
mention of environmental damage associated with forest grows, said 
Silvaggio. "The problem is not new. Everyone has known about this 
problem for many decades."

For example, the back-to-the-landers who seeded Humboldt's pot 
industry were tree-hugging environmentalists first, and they have 
long been furious about the second wave of growers who moved in to 
wreak the same type of havoc as the loggers once did. Groups like the 
Environmental Protection Information Center, Friends of the Eel River 
and the Mattole Forest Futures Project have been advocating for clean 
pot-growing techniques-including water reclamation, erosion control 
and organic growing methods-since the 1990s. They've gotten a number 
of environmental groups in Northern California fired up about the 
issue for at least a decade.

The clamor for more eco-conscious pot-growing then hit a new peak in 
2008 with the Hacker Creek diesel spill that fouled a whole 
watershed. "That broke the code of silence right there, and then 
people came out," Silvaggio noted.

But experts say what has really amplified the issue this year are two 
factors: Federal law enforcement has made environmentalism a new 
platform of the marijuana war, and the media, which never tires of 
stories that combine shadowy, violent drug cartels with weapons, weed 
and helicopters, and can now add cute dead animals to the mix.

Humboldt State University sociologist Josh Meisel said he caught a 
glimpse of the federal government's new messaging on pot two years 
ago in a meeting with Tommy LaNier, head of the White House's 
national marijuana initiative. According to Meisel, LaNier said 
federal authorities "recognize that public opinion has shifted, and 
they can't wage this battle on the historic platform of it being an 
issue of morality."

According to Meisel, LaNier said, "The public doesn't buy that 
anymore. We aren't going to win this as a battle of morality. We have 
to wage it in terms of the environmental destruction."

And in a podcast produced by the U.S. Forest Service in August 2009, 
U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske said he wanted to build a coalition 
based on the environmental harms of pot-growing.

"What seems to be missing from the regular media reporting on the 
whole issue is how much damage is occurring to really pristine land," 
Kerlikowske said.

LaNier said in the same podcast: "We need to bring in ... the Sierra 
Club, environmental individuals; we need to bring in as many people, 
to get them on our side to go to Congress and say, 'Hey, this is 
enough. Those are pristine lands that were set aside for the use of 
the public, not for the production of marijuana.'"

The shift in strategy is traveling up and down the chain of command. 
For example, in a 2013 report on the results of a Central Valley 
marijuana sweep dubbed Operation Mercury, Benjamin B. Wagner, the 
U.S. attorney based here in Sacramento, trumpeted the seizure of 
half-a-million marijuana plants and the prosecution of 84 suspects.

But, instead of focusing on charges of drug trafficking, violence or 
weapons, Wagner's office highlighted the environmental damage that 
the suspects had allegedly caused.

One 26-year-old Mexican citizen who was caught growing 16,205 plants 
in Sequoia National Forest "caused extensive damage to the land and 
natural resources," Wagner's office stated.

"Native vegetation was cut to make room for the marijuana plants and 
trash and fertilizer containers were scattered throughout the site, 
including in flowing streams."

Another Mexican citizen who was convicted of growing 8,876 pot plants 
cut down native oak trees: "the soil was tilled, and fertilizers and 
pesticides, including a highly toxic and illegal rat poison from 
Mexico called Fosfuro de Zinc or zinc phosphide, were spread 
throughout the site," Wagner's office noted.

And even on the White House's Web page on marijuana, the environment 
gets its own section in which the administration states, "Outdoor 
marijuana cultivation is harmful to the environment."

Corva laughed when I read him the White House's statement. "That's 
ridiculous," he said. "Outdoor is better.

"Where does this come from?" he continued. "Sensationalist coverage 
of the exception rather than the rule, and also the conditions of 
prohibition, basically."

Meisel added: "There's nothing about growing dope that has to involve 
massive amounts of energy, dangerous chemicals, water diversion, 
disrespect to your neighbors and killing animal species-just like we 
don't have to do that growing tomatoes. And we don't grow tomatoes in Yosemite.

"These are unintended consequences of the policy, not the plant."

Prohibition's failure

Meisel said that the greenwashing of the war on pot "has become a 
tool to break the back of the legalization movement," referring to 
the decision by drug-war enforcers to shift their rhetoric from the 
supposed dangers of smoking weed to the environmental damage caused 
by trespass grows in order to gain support among environmentalists 
for the war on pot. "It's a strategy to undermine local growing 
across the board, as opposed to going after people who are violating 
environmental laws."

Norms have shifted around marijuana consumption, Silvaggio said. 
"Presidents have smoked weed. But there's a need to keep it illegal. 
There's this particular function it provides-that is law-enforcement money.

"So they've switched tracks," Silvaggio continued. "And this track 
has proved very useful."

But the way to halt environmental harms caused by growing pot isn't 
through a new campaign against weed: It's through legalization, 
taxation and regulation of cannabis, said Humboldt County Sheriff 
Downey during a public meeting with North Bay Congressman Jared 
Huffman on August 29. "I've never been a big fan of legalization," 
Downey told the crowd. "But right now, I think that's the most 
logical way to end this drug war."

After all, it was the drug war that sent growers into the forest in 
the first place. And farming in the woods offers no particular 
advantage for growers-other than allowing them to avoid detection by 
law enforcement.

"Are they up there for the dry weather, great soil and ample water?" 
said celebrity growing instructor Ed Rosenthal. "No, they're up there 
because it's hard to get caught."

Legalizing marijuana and growing it on traditional farms, alongside 
other crops, also will eliminate the risks currently associated with 
pot production and distribution-and will likely reduce costs 
dramatically. According to RAND estimates, fully legalized, 
commercially farmed high-grade pot would cost just $20 per pound to 
produce. And low-grade weed would cost only $5 per pound. With profit 
margins so low, there simply would be no incentive to spend four 
filthy months growing weed in bear-infested backwoods, Silvaggio and 
other advocates of legalization point out.

Plus, farming marijuana out in the open would be much better for the 
environment-there would be no need, for example, to siphon water 
illegally from creeks and streams. And pesticide and insecticide use 
could be regulated-like they it is for any other crop.

"If it was grown like corn or hemp, it would be regulated, including 
the discharge of chemicals and the amount of water used and the way 
you grade," said Connelly. In addition, organic pot-growing likely 
would sprout as a major industry.

And because cannabis is a highly productive plant, it wouldn't take 
up that much farmland. According to a RAND study, just 10,000 acres 
of intensively farmed land could grow all the dope Americans consume each year.

California's estimated share would total only 1,600 acres. By 
comparison, the state currently dedicates about 150,000 acres to 
pistachio growing each year.

The relaxation of pot prohibition has already caused price drops in 
California, Colorado and Washington, but this half-solution has 
caused existing farmers to plant more to make up for lost profits. 
It's going to take a true market crash from national legalization and 
regulation to halt wildland growing forever. "I think we'd see a 
decrease slowly in environmental harms, and then it would be 
minimal," Silvaggio said. "Long term, we'd see a recovery in the ecosystem."

Silvaggio also argued that the news media needs to start sharing the 
stories of growers who farm sustainably in Humboldt and how they do 
it. "There's a total disregard for interviewing and talking with 
communities that are growing ecologically sensitive weed."

"Prohibition has failed and it needs to end," he continued. "If we 
didn't have prohibition, we would see this problem go away."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom