Photo via moose henderson
California produces 13.5 million tons of cannabis, but only consumes 2.5 million tons of it, according to economists. That means there's a lot of black market ganja being grown in the Golden State despite the launch of the state's new legal cannabis market, and more farmers than you might think have no plans to transition into compliance. Comfortable operating in the shadows of the law (as they have been for decades), with no aspirations to get licensed or brand themselves as responsible canna-businesses, some of these cultivators are trespassing on public lands, contaminating the environment, and putting wildlife at risk.
Earlier this month, UC Santa Cruz ecologist Chris Wilmers expressed concern that cannabis cultivation may endanger the area’s native population of mountain lions. He told the Santa Cruz Sentinel that in particular, increased human presence and infrastructure could push human-averse mountain lions out of their habitat. What's more, anticoagulant rodenticides could harm mountain lions' immune systems, if not kill them in higher doses, with increased cultivation.
With anticoagulants, organisms like rats eat them, hemorrhage, and bleed to death. Furthermore, they don't die immediately, which means there's a period of time during which they're particularly vulnerable to predators, who could get sick from eating them as well.
"There's definitely a greater knowledge about the use of rodenticides on cannabis farms [in that] much fewer folks use rodenticides and for the most part, gnarly pesticides, too," says permaculturist Dan Mar, who co-created the Regenerative Cannabis Farming Award presented at the Emerald Cup. "Those are still being found mostly related to illegal growers in public lands or national forests."
Rodenticides and pesticides aren't the only threats to wildlife from illegal cannabis grows. "Presently the greatest threat to wildlife related to cannabis farming, especially related to upland watersheds, is habitat fragmentation," Mar says. "Animals are losing their habitats to development, and that has a ripple effect. It will affect prey species up and down the food web until it hits upper level predators like mountain lions."
And not only is there habitat fragmentation, but a lack of habitat management in terms of responsibly using forests, he adds. Overstocked with a plant monoculture like fir trees, but without a population of smaller vegetation to produce food for a range of animals, Mar says, many forests are coming to lack fauna like squirrels, rabbits, and deer — would-be food sources for mountain lions, who instead eat poisoned rats.
However, rather than being a detriment, regenerative cannabis cultivation could make pot farming a vehicle to restore the forest habitat, Mar says. "For us up here trying to change the paradigm, you're not growing cannabis — you're managing a forest. If you manage the forest, all the issues related to cannabis are decreased." In a healthy forest, birds, insects, and mammals have functional predator-prey relationships, while the pests like rodents would be kept at a naturally low population. "A balanced system helps balance the agricultural system, as well," says Mar.
Rodenticide and monoculture aren't alone in throwing off nature's balance. Another big threat is plastic trellising and deer fences from grow sites that wildlife get caught in or eat, Mar says. When farmers cut the plants out of the trellis, unless they're careful, they end up cutting the plastic, too, leaving behind pieces that animals can choke on.
Electrical generators powering rural cannabis farms are another threat, often scaring off birds of prey like hawks or owls, Mar says. The term "sungrown" isn't as pure as it seems: many outdoor farmers use low-wattage lighting early in the grow cycle, run dehumidifiers to dry and cure their harvested crop, or simply need good lights for their trimmers to see what they're doing, he explains. And without birds of prey, rodents like rats, moles, and gophers increase in population — and these critters eat the plants around them, including cannabis. Farmers respond with poisonous bait and, once again, disrupt the ecosystem’s delicate balance.
This isn't just a problem for the forest. Fishers miles and miles away from human habitation are finding rat poison in their boats’ water lines, says Humboldt State University environmental sociologist Anthony Silvaggio, who also works with the Humboldt Institute for Interdisciplinary Marijuana Research. "Unscrupulous growers drop rodenticide and insecticide in a line, or some build what they call ‘chemical fences,’" he explains. "But this is all illegal trespass grows on public lands, not your farmer down the street who has an acre growing weed. People conflate the issue all the time."
Prohibition only exacerbates the overall threat to wildlife, Silvaggio says. "People make a lot more money because it's still profitable to grow on public lands illegally." Selling weed out of state is still much more profitable than selling it in California. Even selling to the Nevada black market could get you $3,600 a pound, he says.
"So part of the solution is addressing the federal prohibition issue," Silvaggio says, which would reduce financial incentives for illegal sales. "The second part is that local jurisdictions should work with the existing cannabis community with best management practices so that those who are growing it legally or quasi-legally on their properties have the opportunity to continue to grow and do it in a sustainable way." Localities should aim to cooperate with unlicensed farmers exercising responsible farming techniques, but who fall out of compliance with local regulations, Silvaggio says. These "self-regulated" farmers aren't the actual threat to the environment: the black market loyalists are.