When you think about what greens are helping to extend California’s drought, you probably don’t think of cannabis, but in California, marijuana and alfalfa may have more in common than you think. California is, in fact, responsible for two-thirds of the agriculture produced in the United States and 60 percent of the marijuana found around the country, mostly originating from growers in northern California. Unsurprisingly, both these water-intensive industries greatly contribute to, and worsen, the drought that California has been facing for the past five years. The legalization of recreational marijuana use may fix the problems the industry is currently causing, but only if proper regulations are put in place to protect our state’s watersheds.
Because the state has only legalized medical marijuana use — and it’s still federally classified as a schedule one drug — many black market sellers are forced to grow their product in remote places for fear of getting caught. This usually results in marijuana cultivation deep into northern California’s protected national forests, such as the Shasta-Trinity Forest near Redding, California, which has been hit hard by illegal marijuana growers. Most plots draw water directly from streams through pipes that are powered by diesel generators and have no water storage capabilities, which means that streams are often run dry in the summer to support the fast-growing crop.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife has estimated that the area under cultivation has increased anywhere from 55 to 100 percent in the last five years, which directly coincides with California’s drought timeline. California’s State Water Resources Control Board also estimates that there are 50,000 grow sites in northern California alone. The average cannabis plant needs 6 gallons of water a day and has an average 150-day grow cycle, so for a medium sized grow with about 500 plants, that would be a total of 450,000 gallons for one harvest of one plot. To put this water use into perspective, the amount of water needed to raise cannabis is double the amount of water needed to grow grapes.
The only way to curtail this growing industry and stop its destruction of our watersheds is to enact legislation, and the only way to do that is to legalize marijuana completely so that water usage for cannabis can be controlled across the state. Firstly, legalization will cut down on illegal grows in the forest because it won’t be as convenient as having plots in cities, and it would cost more in transportation to get their product to buyers. This would therefore reduce the amount of water directly taken from streams and protected habitats. Secondly, if you have growers apply for water rights and fine those that use up too many resources, then it also incentives them to become more efficient in growing their crops.
Luckily, California legislators seem to be finally realizing this industry needs to be regulated. In October, Gov. Jerry Brown signed bills into law that would treat cannabis like an agricultural crop and create a bureau that would issue licenses to all growers of medical marijuana. Although this is a step in the right direction, by targeting farmers who illegally siphon water and use harmful pesticides, this still doesn’t affect the black market growers that cause the most damage to the environment. Additionally, the bills won’t be fully enacted until 2018.
Legalization would also lessen the other environmental impacts that growing marijuana illegally has, such as soil erosion from land that has to be cleared to set up the crops, runoff filled with pesticides and gasoline and human waste from the growers living next to their crop to protect it. This pollution increases the stress put on river ecosystems by increasing water temperatures due to lower water levels. It also threatens the breeding and rearing habitats of endangered species such as the Chinook salmon, already heavily impacted by dams in Shasta County, by increasing the amount of sediment in the water.
With the overall value of the plant being $16 billion, taxes imposed on legalized recreational use could net the state anywhere between $650 million to $1.5 billion in revenue, a large portion of which could go to remediation efforts, as well as regulating and enforcing the imposed laws. This would be a large help to the Department of Fish and Wildlife — as it currently only has the capacity to patrol and enforce laws at one percent of the suspected grow sites — and has the possibility of ending the drought in California.