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Illegal Marijuana Operations Are Destroying Public Lands: Could Legalization Help?

For every acre of land where marijuana is grown, approximately 10 more acres are polluted with toxic chemical fertilizers and herbicides.
 
 
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It was the largest pot bust in one of the most weed-friendly states in the country. Last spring a SWAT team, with National Guard choppers hovering overhead, broke up a mammoth grow operation and confiscated 91,000 marijuana plants in Eastern Oregon. In total, the weed had a street value of over a quarter of a billion dollars.

Dozens of weapons were found and six individuals were arrested. However, no doors had be to kicked in and no grow lights were hauled off during the raid. In fact, the grow operation, like an increasing number in the United States, wasn't set up in an urban building or across the border in Mexico. It was taking place outdoors on our public lands.

The scene law enforcement uncovered that day in Oregon was one of ecological devastation. Several miles of plastic drip lines, piles of trash and hundreds of pounds of chemicals and herbicides were discovered in a remote part of the state's scenic Wallowa County. Dozens of trees were cut along the valley floor to bring in sunlight for the plants. The growers, who happened to be spotted by bear hunters a few months prior, had also formed well-worn pathways that meandered along a riverbed through thousands of their water-sucking plants.

"Many people would be outraged at the damage to our public lands caused by illegal marijuana growers," said Sgt. John Shaul of the La Grande Police Dept. shortly after the raid.

The illegal farm crew will face charges for growing pot as well as for environmental damages. Their case, maintains U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, illustrates a trend that is spreading across the country.

According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, for every acre of land where marijuana is grown, approximately 10 more acres are polluted with toxic chemical fertilizers and herbicides. Water diversion from streams is also intense, with an estimated hundreds of thousands of gallons of water being illegally drained from streams that may contain endangered species like salmon and trout. However, the long-term toll these farms inflict on the environment is hard to gauge.

Government officials contest the pot-growing outbreak is being orchestrated largely by so-called "drug trafficking organizations" from our neighbors in Mexico. The DEA says these drug cartels' business model is to maximize profit by reducing delivery expenses. Pot smokers can then buy cheaper weed because the growers are able to avoid the costs associated with smuggling hundreds of pounds of product across the border. Fortunately for these producers, the cannabis plant can flourish in many types of conditions. All they need is some remote land with access to water and they are up and running in no time.

Most of federal eradication efforts have thus far been focused on seven states: Hawaii, Washington, Oregon, California, West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee, with almost 60 to 65 percent of these outdoor crops being planted on public lands. In the last two years alone, law enforcement agencies across the country seized over 20 million pot plants, an annual increase of 5 million compared to 2005. Growers have expanded their growing business into other states as well, including Michigan, Wisconsin, Alabama, Colorado and Virginia.

It's not just public lands that are being used for clandestine pot farms. Last summer, owners of the Korbel Winery in Sonoma County, California were startled to find that 15 of their protected redwood trees had been chopped to the ground by trespassers who were growing over 100 pot plants on their land. To top it off, bags of fertilizer were dumped along a nearby creek.

 
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