On 1 January, Proposition 64 was welcomed with open arms and Happy New Year blunts by many Californians.
To bring in the new year, the state had become the latest in the US to legalise the drug for recreational use, following years of partial legalisation for medical purposes.
Even before full legalisation kicked in, California was already the cannabis capital of the US. “California produces the majority of the marijuana that the US consumes, legal or illegal,” said Dr Mourad Gabriel, an ecologist at the University of California, Davis.
While this status has made California popular among cannabis enthusiasts for decades, it has been accompanied by a creeping environmental disaster.
Hidden in California’s extensive forests are thousands of illegal cannabis farms. At these sites the desire to maximize production and profit and the need to grow in discrete areas that are far from ideal for agriculture, has driven growers to extreme measures.
The lack of oversight means many of these sites are doused in toxic chemicals that are working their way into the ecosystem and poisoning California’s wildlife. “Overuse of pesticides is just absolutely rampant,” said Dr Gabriel.
As many cannabis growers are already operating outside of the law, they do not feel compelled to stick to state regulations concerning chemicals and excessive use is not the only concern. On illegal farms run by cartels, scientists have found traces of fertilizers and pesticides like carbofuran that have been banned in the US for years.
In their work, Dr Gabriel and his colleagues have found endangered owls and weasel-like mammals called fishers showing signs of poisoning by rodenticides. These chemicals are applied to prevent rats from eating sugar-rich cannabis sprouts and when ingested they cause brain damage and internal bleeding.
Besides working their way up the food chain and poisoning animals, toxic chemicals are seeping into the water supply. Here they have the potential to harm more wildlife, as well as livestock and people.
But as the cannabis industry seeks legitimacy, a chance presents itself for a crackdown on the illegal chemicals that currently prop up much of California’s cannabis production and a move towards a greener solution.
“I talk to a lot of growers who are permitted or who want to come into regulatory oversight and some of them are seeking organic status, they want to be sustainable,” said Dr Gabriel.
With legalization, economics and market pressure could ultimately “weed out the majority” of black market cannabis production, according to Dr Gabriel. This would pave the way for a state-wide cannabis industry that complies with chemical regulations. However, the dissipation of the black market will “not take place overnight”.
Dr Reggie Gaudino is chief science officer at Steep Hill Labs, a medical cannabis research facility that aims to “empower cultivators, dispensaries, manufacturers and consumers with a transparent understanding of science”.
He says regulation of the industry, along with proper enforcement and education on alternative pest management methods, could result in an overall reduction in pesticide use.
According to Dr Gaudino, there is growing awareness about the need to protect the environment while growing cannabis: “As the industry matures the community does become aware,” he explained.
“There are several movements in the industry towards reducing the use of chemicals,” he said, mentioning the Clean Green growing program, which allows growers to brand their product as grown without pesticides while still passing microbial testing.
However, some in the state are a little less optimistic about the future of California’s environment. Stephen Frick, assistant special agent in charge of the Forest Service, thinks the legalization of cannabis can only be bad news for the state’s wildlife.
“I expect more people moving into the state for the sole purpose of marijuana production,” he said. “We will see more people and more marijuana production on both private and public lands.”
Instead of purely green intentions, Mr Frick is concerned these new growers have another motivation: money.
The issue, he said, is that the state lacks the capacity to deal with those who grow their cannabis using illegal chemicals. The stakes are just too high.
“Who is going to enforce the pesticide regulation in the state? What is the punishment for those caught with illegal pesticides?” Mr Frick asked.
“The millions of dollars in illicit marijuana production here in California far outweigh any fines imposed by the state for using these illegal and/or legal pesticides in an unlawful manner.
“Until California gets serious about making clean water and our environment a priority over legalizing marijuana, pesticides will continue to be abused by growers regardless of the impact they have on our resources,” said Mr Frick.
In the densely forested Humboldt county, on California’s north-west coast, a report released in November revealed there are around 15,000 grow sites. Of these, only 2,300 have applied for legal permits, of which only 91 were permitted.
“So that demonstrates clearly that the majority of cultivators on private lands still want to be in the black market,” said Dr Gabriel. “Probably because of the high profit margin in the black market versus the regulated industry.”
Dr Gabriel agrees there is a lack of capacity to deal with the illegal cannabis growers and their harmful chemicals. He estimates there are no more than 300 biologists and law enforcement agents hired to address the problem of illegal pesticide use by the state’s cannabis farmers.
“That may seem like a lot of personnel, but we have upwards of 13,000 unpermitted grows that need to be inspected, enforced or eradicated in addition to the permitted grows that need inspecting in one county along,” he said.
With 58 counties in California, that’s a lot of farms that require monitoring.
“We can put regulations on the books, but it’s the question of how you enforce them, and how you standardize that enforcement,” said Dr Gabriel.
Many have referred to the burgeoning cannabis economy as a “green rush”, an opportunity for motivated entrepreneurs to legitimize a previously illegal practice and bring in a huge amount of money in the process.
However, Dr Gabriel warns that unless proper attention and respect are paid to the environment, the “green rush” analogy may be accurate in a less positive way.
“When we look at it as conservationists, what we don’t want to happen is something similar to the gold rush,” he said.
The gold rush brought enormous wealth to California, but also brought environmental devastation. Rivers were dammed, land was torn up and forests were logged to support the demand for the precious minerals.
“We are still currently spending lots of public funded dollars to restore the ramifications from the gold rush that happened 150 years ago, said Dr Gabriel.
“What I would hate to happen is that we bypass current environmental regulations for short term monetary gain.”