Pubdate: Tue, 26 Dec 2017
Source: Seattle Post-Intelligencer (WA)
Copyright: 2017 Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Contact: P.O. Box 1909, Seattle, WA 98111-1909
Author: Ellen Knickmeyer, Associated Press


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.

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 pot 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.

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 pot 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.

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 Northern California's remote and forested Humboldt County, where an
estimated 15,000 pot 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.

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.

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

California's Department of Pesticide Regulation is adding about 10
toxicologists and other scientists to its staff of 400 to deal with
the pot 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'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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