Pubdate: Thu, 28 May 2015
Source: Chico News & Review, The (CA)
Copyright: 2015 Chico Community Publishing, Inc.
Author: Dan Sullivan


Scientists Point to Drought Conditions Elevating Medicinal Properties 
of Marijuana While Bolstering Guerrilla Grows

Global warming may give a minor twist to that classic hippie bumper 
sticker that quips, "Acid rain: Too bad it's not as much fun as it 
sounds." Turns out a warming climate could boost the medicinal and 
psychoactive properties of plants-including cannabis.

But that's not all: Climate change also will open up higher 
elevations to growing weed clandestinely on public lands, a practice 
that's putting increased strain on fragile ecosystems. Some say 
relaxed marijuana laws exacerbate the problem by bringing in more 
growers; others argue increased regulation and oversight will 
eventually lead to more responsible growing practices.

One prominent researcher who specializes in weed migration patterns 
in the face of climate change says marijuana grown outdoors likely 
will become stronger and require less water to thrive.

"If you go back to the times plants evolved on land, the average CO2 
levels were 1,000 parts per million; today it's about 400," said 
Lewis Ziska, a plant physiologist with the U.S. Department of 
Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service.

About 4 percent of plant species have adapted to lower CO2 levels, 
most of them subtropical grasses such as sorghum, corn and millet. 
However, most plants-including marijuana-still feel deprived of the 
optimal CO2 levels they were born into.

Ziska's research suggests plants feeling deprived will benefit from 
rising CO2 levels because they haven't yet adapted to the lower 
levels. His own and other scientists' work indicates the medicinal 
qualities of these plants may be bolstered by global warming.

Retired USDA ethno-botanist James Duke says that when plants are 
stressed, due to circumstances such as the conditions brought on by 
drought, they tend to exhibit more of their medicinal properties.

Duke has seen this in his "Green Farmacy Garden" in Fulton, Md., home 
to more than 300 native and nonnative species of medicinal plants 
that have been utilized traditionally and/or researched for use in 
modern medicine.

"Something we learned in the garden ... is that the more stress a 
plant gets-heat or cold or disease or just plain beating it-the more 
medicinal and less edible it becomes," Duke said.

Marijuana doesn't produce psychotropic compounds such as THC just so 
people can smoke it, Ziska explains. It's a pest repellant. "Plants 
aren't mobile-they can't get up and move around-so they have to 
produce these chemicals to fight off pests and disease."

The marijuana market is getting crowded. As states, including 
California, relax marijuana prohibitions, larger producers are 
rushing in, spilling onto public lands without regard for 
environmental rules in a bid to get rich quick.

As California enters its fourth year of drought, that intensified 
production is taking its toll on an already taxed water supply.

A 2014 California Department of Fish and Wildlife study of one of 
four watersheds within the state's so-called Emerald Triangle (prime 
marijuana-growing counties of Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity) 
estimated growers used nearly 63,000 gallons of water a day to 
irrigate 10,500 outdoor marijuana plants. That's 9.5 million gallons 
per growing season out of one watershed. Depending on the creek 
monitored, that level of use amounts to between 21 percent and 29 
percent of minimum stream flow, the amount of water necessary to 
preserve stream values including fish and wildlife habitat, aquatic 
life, water quality and aesthetic beauty.

One biologist who has been a thorn in the side of Northern 
California's guerrilla pot farmers has been keeping an eye both on 
the political climate and the environment.

Along with colleagues at UC Davis, and the Integral Ecology Research 
Center, a nonprofit he helped launch to protect sensitive flora, 
fauna and ecosystems, Mourad Gabriel has been assessing pot farming's 
toll on the environment. The journey began when he traced declining 
populations of the fisher-a small carnivorous mammal and member of 
the weasel family-to rat poisoning placed by growers to protect crops.

"The fisher was an environmental indicator that we had a problem," 
Gabriel said. "I draw the analogy of a festering wound where you just 
see the precipice and you scratch it and notice it's much larger and 
is actually this neoplastic cancerous growth that's going through our 

Guerilla pot farmers-those growing on public lands as opposed to 
their own property-divert huge amounts of water, break trails and set 
up camps in fragile forest ecosystems, and they use large amounts of 
over-the-counter and even banned pesticides, Gabriel said.

Climate change has real potential to make the situation worse, he said.

Common practice, Gabriel said, is to tap into cold stream headwaters 
with half-inch and quarter-inch irrigation line, typically running up 
to 6 miles of pipe over a 2-mile area to water scattered patches 
strategically placed to confound law enforcement officials.

He shares other local biologists' concerns that a warming climate 
will increase the geographic area hospitable to growing marijuana and 
therefore the ubiquity of guerrilla grows.

Pesticides are a big part of that threat. Bill-who grows on his own 
land-said he looks forward to the day when farmers who grow 
organically will be rewarded for their stewardship.

"Why would you pump a medicinal plant with carcinogenic petroleum 
products?" he asked.

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