by Brian Merchant, Brooklyn, New York
on February 27, 2009
Business & Politics
Photo via SF Gate
As you might have heard by now, there's legislation brewing in California to legalize marijuana. And no, the purpose of Assemblyman Tom Ammiano's bill is not to legally allow the entire state to get high and forget all about its budget woes--the point of the bill is to fix them. By making the sale of marijuana legal to those 21 and up, and taxing each ounce sold with a $50 fee, California could rake in an estimated $1.3 billion dollars a year. But what would it mean for the environment?
Looking for a Bill on Grass to Pass
More marijuana is grown in California than any other state. As it stands, it's already the state's biggest cash crop--it's just not legal. So, the reasoning goes, if there's this major industry that's operating entirely outside the law, why not legalize it and reap the fiscal benefits? Many believe that marijuana is no more (or even less) dangerous than alcohol, which provides a wellspring of tax revenue for state coffers.
The new laws would be similar to those regulating alcohol--you would have to be 21 to buy, sell, possess, or grow the stuff.
And here's the kicker--legalizing marijuana could be better for the environment.
A Sticky Situation
A couple of years ago, it was discovered that marijuana crops were bad for forests, and they helped threaten endangered species. Growers would tend crops, harvest, and abandon their farms in the fall, leaving behind: (from an earlier TreeHugger report)
Irrigation tubes that snake for a mile or more over forested ridges. Pesticides that have drained into creeks and entered the food chain, sickening wildlife. Piles of trash and human waste in the most rugged and bucolic drainages.
As the US Forest Service put it, "they basically trash our public lands."
But these reckless, damaging practices come about largely due to two reasons:
1. Growers are afraid of the legal repercussions should they get caught--so they grow crops on land that isn't theirs (read: national forests), in hidden areas that aren't good for agriculture. They trample and endanger ecosystems in the process.
2. There are no regulations marijuana growers must follow--they're already breaking the law, so how much consideration do you think they'll give to making sure they're following sustainable farming practices?
Now all this is not excuse illegal marijuana growing at all--the farmers have no right to be on that land, and no right to endanger our forest habitats. But who wants to bet that marijuana farms aren't going away anytime soon? And that the farmers will continue to damage the environment so as long as the practice is illegal and unregulated?
As of 2006, there were over 21 million marijuana plants harvested in California. That's a lot of unregulated, potentially destructive farming. If buying, selling, and growing marijuana were legalized, then a whole new set of regulations could be imposed to monitor the grow centers and ensure they observed California agriculture laws. Pesticide use could be controlled, errant trash disposal could minimized, and public lands would be better protected--it would erase the need for reckless guerilla farming. Farmers would be able to plant in areas better suited for agriculture, and would disrupt fewer forest habitats as a result.
It's still a deeply hypothetical scenario--the legalization bill is still a long shot--but making marijuana legal could very well be better for the environment.