In his sunny office on the edge of town in Arcata, California, Scott Greacen pulls up a slideshow on his large high-resolution monitor. As wildflowers sway in the wind outside a window, a woodsy guitar solo starts to play along with the pictures. Greacen mutes it; he wants to focus on destruction. Aerial images of clear-cut plots within the coastal forest, bounded by dusty roads and dotted with trucks, show the intrusion of industrial marijuana cultivation into redwood groves and hillsides. Some plots are small, barely detectable. Others cover hundreds of acres with row upon row of oblong structures covered with white tarps, blighting the landscape like giant predatory maggots.
“Look,” Greacen says, pointing to the screen. “Eleven greenhouses on the top of a ridge. Where does the water come from?”
Greacen, who has the genial appearance of a scholarly mountain man — neatly trimmed beard, wire-rimmed glasses, long hair parted in the middle and tied back — is the executive director of Friends of the Eel River, a nonprofit founded in 1994 to promote the restoration of California’s third-largest watershed. The 200-mile long Eel runs south to north from Mendocino County to the Pacific Ocean below the central Humboldt County city of Eureka. It has been hammered by industry for more than a century, dammed and drained to serve municipal water demand in Mendocino and Sonoma counties. Timber companies, too, have done their share of damage, stripping slide-prone land of stabilizing vegetation and causing sediment to clog the river’s already diminished flows.
“Our coast range has a seismic uplift equivalent to the Himalayas,” Greacen says. “If it weren’t for erosion, we’d have a Mount Everest.” Mountains lifted out of the ancient seabed typically shed a certain amount of fine sediment into the Eel, but at a rate the river’s flow can handle. The accelerated spalling caused by roads, traffic and grading, sifts in much more. Anadromous salmon travel hundreds of miles from the ocean inland to spawn in the river bed’s oxygenated gravel. If that gravel is clogged with sediment, the eggs will suffocate before they hatch.
The Eel, its forks and many smaller tributaries had only recently begun to recover from timber’s assaults when, in the 1990s, a relatively benign, back-to-the-land cannabis movement exploded in Humboldt’s mountains. The Compassionate Use Act of 1996, passed by voters as Proposition 215, legalized marijuana for medical use, opening a whole new market for weed. Growing operations multiplied on public and private land in California, particularly in the forested reaches of Mendocino, Trinity and Humboldt counties, a region so full of cannabis crops it’s known as the “Emerald Triangle.”
The ecological toll marijuana cultivation has exacted on those lands has been well-documented. Growers poison wildlife with rodenticide, hire armed guards to shoot bear and deer, run noisy and polluting diesel generators to light their indoor grows. Weekly trips by 40-ton water trucks tear up old timber roads built for only a few trips a year. Cannabis plants use massive amounts of water, which comes from rivers and creeks already suffering from intermittent drought (despite a relatively wet winter, the U.S. Drought Monitor currently ranks all of Humboldt County “abnormally dry.”) In a 2015 study, Scott Bauer of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife estimated that marijuana cultivation draws down nearly a quarter of river flows in some watersheds, with “lethal or sub-lethal effects” on federally endangered salmon.
Ten years ago, Bauer’s agency considered fish pretty much stabilized in the old timber company lands, Greacen says. “Their strategy was, ‘Let’s see if we can bring them back in the “hippie zone” – the good habitats on the west side of the Eel’s South Fork.
“Instead,” Greacen laments, “it’s gone exactly backwards.” All because of weed. Or, rather, not weed, he clarifies, but “weed-driven development. We’re developing in places that don’t make any sense.”
One might say that about the whole Emerald Triangle, where water is scarce and habitats fragile. Virtually any place would be better for growing marijuana, from Central California’s already industrialized agricultural counties to the Mississippi River Valley, where cannabis could thrive in loam soil with abundant summer rains. Marijuana cultivation didn’t become an industry in the Emerald Triangle because of any beneficial peculiarities of climate or soil. Though some make the argument that cool nights and warm days produce particularly potent strains of indica, Humboldt County was never any kind of Shangri-La for cannabis. Marijuana cultivation took off in Northern California’s remote wildlands because, as the drug war set in, its forests offered excellent cover.
Nor does indoor cultivation reduce the environmental problems associated with pot cultivation. Indoor grows still use water; some need pesticides to control mites. They have huge carbon footprints. In 2011, energy researcher Evan Mills estimated that, in California alone, “indoor cultivation is responsible for three percent of all electricity use” in the state, consuming the annual equivalent of one million average homes.”
Now, as California heads toward full legalization with Proposition 64 on the November ballot, the Emerald Triangle counties are trying to make the most of their growth industry as it emerges from the shadows. Some people believe that with regulation the environmental picture will improve. Others are not so sure. Humboldt County’s land-use ordinance, passed in January, will still grant permits to growers who draw water from rivers and streams; it also grandfathers in existing growing operations on less-than-ideal parcels. “The rules are being written by people with long histories in the property-rights movement,” Greacen notes. “They have zero interest in environmental protection.”
In the 20 years since medical marijuana became legal in California, the plant’s entire lifecycle, from seed to consumption, has occupied a nebulous realm of tangled regulation and conflicting laws. In 2004, Senate Bill 420 (yes, seriously) formally instituted California’s medical marijuana program, setting limits on possession and cultivation for patients and primary caregivers; in 2008, a state appeals court ruled those limits unconstitutional. Cities and counties still set cultivation limits (Mendocino’s is 26 plants), and some cities and counties have banned pot growing altogether.
Further loading up the legal soup, the federal government recently affirmed marijuana’s status on the Schedule I list — useful for nothing and dangerous to all — even as individual states rapidly move toward more tolerant polices.
Tony Silvaggio, a sociology professor at Humboldt State University and a faculty member at the Humboldt Institute for Interdisciplinary Marijuana Research (HIIMR), blames that legal gray area for causing most of pot’s problems. “It’s a setup that rewards illegal practices,” he says. “Conditions have been right for growers to be irresponsible.” He insists that there’s nothing inherently destructive about growing pot, and rejects some of the “racially coded and anti-immigrant rhetoric about ‘cartels’ and Bulgarians” used to disparage people from other countries who have come to California in large numbers to grow pot. (“It’s just because they also grow weed in Bulgaria,” he says. “They grow really good weed in Bulgaria.”)
To Silvaggio, the solution lies in statewide legalization, combined with a suite of laws Governor Jerry Brown signed last year that will come into effect January 1, 2018. The laws create a state licensing board governing all stages of marijuana production and sales, and classify marijuana as an agricultural product, with restrictions on land and water use.
“We could help push out those folks that are doing environmentally harmful practices, and address some of the most egregious growers that are sucking from sensitive watersheds,” Silvaggio says. “Regulation could work to limit some of the damage to the ecosystem.”
Greacen would like to believe that Silvaggio is right. “What I’ve been hoping is that we would build a critical mass of legal growers who would demand protection from their competitors,” he says. “My hope is that those growers would push for effective enforcement in the years to come.” But for that to happen, enough illegal growers have to emerge from the shadows. Early indicators in Humboldt County seem to indicate that they won’t.
As of August 10, only 846 marijuana businesses had applied for permits under Humboldt County’s relatively permissive zoning ordinance, according to the Lost Coast Outpost. Few of them are new; most are longstanding operations. No one knows for sure how many more contribute to Humboldt County’s $1 billion industry; the California Department of Fish and Wildlife last year put the number at around 4,000; Greacen thinks it’s higher, more like 8,000 or 10,000. By either count, it appears that fewer than a quarter of currently operating growers intend to come correct.
The permitting workload, however, has been enough to induce stress-related illnesses among the county’s planning staff. “The foundation of our operational capacity is cracking and getting worse,” wrote four senior planning staffers in a memo to the board of supervisors in May. “We are heading toward a catastrophe.”
If Proposition 64 passes in November, and marijuana becomes a legal drug, legitimate growing operations will pay state cultivation taxes $9.25 per ounce of flowers and $2.75 per ounce of leaves. Retail sales will be taxed at 15 percent. The Humboldt County supervisors on August 9 elected to put an additional tax on the county’s ballot, of $1 to $3 per square foot of cultivation. The county tax, should voters approve it, has been earmarked for local public services, which presumably include some for law enforcement. The threat of a costly and disruptive bust remains the most powerful incentive for growers to move into the light of legal operations.
Alison Malsbury, a Seattle-based attorney who has watched the legalization of recreational marijuana roll out in Washington State, thinks there might be yet another inducement to exploit with growers: Consumer choice. The California legislature is currently working on regulations for both the medical marijuana and recreational marijuana industry. “Part of their goal,” Malsbury says, “is to address the environmental problem,” setting standards for energy, water and land use. Once they’re in place, those regulations could provide a framework that rewards sustainable growers with higher profits while the black market operators wither away.
“Once you make cannabis legally accessible to people, provide a regulated product that has to be grown by licensed cultivators and tested by labs, the incentive for buying a black market product goes away,” she says. “You’re providing people with a safe product,” reliably tested for potency and chemistry. Some people who want a strain higher in the less psychoactive cannabidiol (CBD) and lower in the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) that makes some people paranoid, for instance, can reliably get it from dispensaries that contract with licensed growers.
For Emerald Triangle growers who want to protect their market dominance, Malsbury suggests developing some sort of artisanal branding or appellation, much like vintners have. “It’s a great idea for consumers who want to make sure that their product has the distinguishing characteristic of Humboldt County growers,” she says.
Silvaggio agrees. “An appellation will help us not lose our edge in cannabis,” he says. “We have a name and a reputation.”
Scott Greacen, however, remains skeptical that any branding scheme could ameliorate the environmental destruction of cannabis farms. “The idea that we could, with an effective base of legal regulation, build a superstructure of real, consumer-based marketing that’s about the environment? It makes for a really good story,” he says. “It’s a story people are writing poetry about.” And certainly some people will buy into it. “Some people will pay a lot more money for wine and beer that has funny taste or a good story or their friends think is great.”
Many more people will not. “The majority of wine sold today is Gallo, and the vast majority of beer sold is Budweiser,” he says. “And the people who buy Gallo don’t care about the lack of salmon in Napa’s streams.
“If we’re looking for consumer preferences and consumer demand to protect our fish,” he says, “we’re looking in the wrong place.”
Photographs courtesy of Scott Greacen