Pubdate: Thu, 14 Jul 2016
Source: North Coast Journal (Arcata, CA)
Column: The Week in Weed
Copyright: 2016 North Coast Journal
Author: Linda Stansberry


How much marijuana is being grown in Humboldt County? We've all heard 
some store porch supposition on the subject, but there's little 
actual data to back it up. A recent article, published in the April 
edition of Environmental Research Letters, may help fill this vacuum.

University of California Berkeley research specialist Van Butsic, and 
Jacob C. Brenner, a professor at Ithaca College, spent almost a year 
analyzing satellite imagery from Humboldt County, counting 
greenhouses and extrapolating to come up with a figure of 4,428 grow 
sites spread over 60 watersheds. The project was inspired by what the 
researchers called "an urgent need for systemic empirical research."

"We were just interested in what's out there," Butsic said in a phone 
interview. "There were a lot of sensational articles. There was not a 
lot of evidence."

The team analyzed the images from the falls of 2012 and 2013, when 
plants would be easiest to spot. When they found a greenhouse, they 
flipped back through previous years to see how long it had been 
there. Their count estimated a 19-fold increase in greenhouses 
between 2004 and 2014. How do they know that these greenhouses were 
being used for weed? Common sense, the study posits - there was a 
simultaneous decrease in nursery crop production over those years. 
What else would they be used for? Greenhouse grows, according to the 
article, contain an average of about 86 plants, while outdoor grows 
contain about 45. Altogether, that adds up to an estimated 297,954 
plants. So, we asked Butsic, are these numbers crazy?

"Not really," he said. "The main take home is that, as of 2012-2013, 
the total amount of land and water use for marijuana cultivation is 
actually quite small compared to other agricultural uses. That being 
said, the areas where it's taking place are not conducive for agriculture."

In other words, in the big picture, pot in Humboldt County is not 
sucking up the same amount of water large commercial agriculture 
operations might be. But it is being grown on increasingly subdivided 
parcels, on steep and eroding slopes, near sensitive fish habitat and 
out of sight from the kind of regulators who would, ostensibly, blow 
the whistle on this nonsense were it alfalfa or oranges.

Butsic said that calling pot "the new almond," as the New York Times 
once did, is a false analogy. But the water being used for marijuana 
is "coming from more complex circumstances" than traditional 
agriculture. And the study, as enlightening as it is, has some 
limitations. It assumes only one crop per year, but we know many 
cannabis farmers are doing multiple crops. And the research was 
conducted before the recent medical cannabis ordinance, which has 
brought a subsequent rush of new growers. Butsic confirmed that he is 
seeking funding for a new study that will compare production from the 
last four years.
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