Northern California marijuana harms ecosystem, has huge carbon footprint. Legalize ASAP!

A book review by Alice Friedemann of Emily Brady’s 2013 book: “Humboldt. Life on America’s marijuana frontier.”

The tales I hear from my friends in Mendocino and Humboldt counties fascinate me.  There are stories of mayors and sheriffs on opposite sides of the drug war plotting revenge against one another.  I’ve heard rumors of murderous felons and the Mexican mafia starting marijuana plantations next to non-growing family ranches, who can’t get law enforcement to do anything because they don’t want to risk their lives – though the officers have promised to look the other way and not do an investigation if someone kills the SOBs.   All kinds of rumors float around, I have no idea if they’re true or not, but life up there sure is interesting.

Bruce Anderson has great over-the-top columns. And I’ll never forget the amazing mock trial “Who Killed Judi Bari?” years ago at Ashkenaz in Berkeley (Anderson’s opinion can be found at “Who Really Bombed Judi Bari?” in the January 3, 2013 online edition of the Humboldt Sentinel).

The book is a romp through the various lives of people who represent different aspects of the marijuana trade.  If you’ve ever wondered why stores like the one in Laytonville advertise they have so many kinds of scissors, it’s because you’d want to buy a Fiskar’s sewing scissor to clean the buds off of marijuana.

Not that you could ever get a job doing that.  Garberville and other towns are overwhelmed by fortune-seeking transients who hope to find a job in the marijuana industry at harvest time and live in the weeds and underpasses waiting for jobs that never appear.  Growers only hire people they know, and now that it’s the second generation of hippie and logger children growing it, they have plenty of friends and family to help out come harvest time.

Meanwhile, listen to local radio station KMUD and you’ll hear about products like “sweet sticky fingers” that helps workers get the gummy resins of marijuana off their hands.  Back in the day when law enforcement swarmed over the land in trucks and helicopters, KMUD and local phone trees broadcast their location, so many growers escaped before they could be arrested. Now growers also have sophisticated motion detecting cameras and alarm systems, as well as pit bulls to defend their crops.

Bob Hamilton, a Humboldt county Sherriff’s deputy, patrols 1200 square miles.  He’s got too many crimes to solve to spend much  time busting marijuana operations, especially now that it’s semi-legal.  The Cato Institute estimates the government spent $41 Billion in 2010 on the war on drugs, but they’ve cut way back on going after the growers in California.  The Eureka Times-Standard June 21, 2013 issues says there are about 4,100 marijuana farms in Humboldt county, and on average law enforcement only shuts down 50 or 60 sites.

Humboldt County perhaps wouldn’t be such an epicenter for this crop if it weren’t for the U.S. government spraying the pesticide paraquat on Mexican marijuana crops back in the 70s, when 90% of dope came from Mexico.  By 2010, 79% of Cannabis smoked in the USA came from California.

This crop brings in over $400 million in unreported income — about a quarter of the county’s $1.6 billion economy.  It’s all cash, so growers have to find places to hide it – most bury the cash in plastic pickle barrels or mason jars deep in their yards or the woods.  Now and then a new home owner finds cash when landscaping.

Growers are keen to deliver a harvest as soon as they can before the price drops.  They’ll wash their cars so the dust doesn’t give them away to officers parked along the road looking for pot dealers.

Legalization is greatly feared, so it’s not uncommon to see the bumper sticker “Save Humboldt County: Keep Pot Illegal”.  Growers fear that once it’s legal, Philip Morris will plant thousands of acres in the Central Valley and drive the price from the current $2,000 a pound down to $50 per pound, and China perhaps would grow it for pennies.  Not totally unrealistic, given that even the “small family farms” in Napa and Sonoma have often been bought out by big players.

What really grabbed my attention were the few pages about the environmental and energy impacts. That got me doing a little research on my own, also motivated by having spent the last weekend swimming in the Eel river and being repulsed by all the green slime, perhaps blue-green algae, which can cause rashes, skin and eye irritation, allergic reactions, and at high levels, serious illness or even death (California department of public health).  Whatever was growing in the water was mainly caused by the fertilizer and pesticide runoff used to grow marijuana crops, which also starves the river of oxygen, harms life in the river, and can cause fish die-offs.

Worse yet, the growers trap so much water in ponds to irrigate the Cannibis that the river levels are artificially low.  Check out the video “Google Earth Reveals Devastation caused by Marijuana Growers”.

The New York Times has an excellent June 20, 2013 article “Marijuana Crops in California Threaten Forests and Wildlife” that discusses these issues.  Growers poison wood rats with d-Con which kills fishers and other forest creatures. Hilltops have been leveled which start landslides and erosion, clogging streams with soil.  Other streams go dry after being diverted to irrigate crops, leaving little water for endangered salmon to spawn in.

I was very surprised to learn that most marijuana is grown indoors in Humboldt and Mendocino counties, because it is far more lucrative than marijuana grown outdoors, and you can harvest it several times a year, instead of just once.  Sungrown marijuana only fetches $30/oz at medical marijuana dispensaries.  But indoor greenhouse dope can fetch 3 times as much.  One of the reasons is that there’s a perception outdoor marijuana is “dirty” from wind-blown debris.

The energy use and carbon footprint of indoor marijuana growing is huge. Check out this peer-reviewed study at: “Energy up in Smoke: The Carbon Footprint of Indoor Cannibis Production” by Evan Mills, a researcher at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Some interesting statistics:

  • The lights used to grow marijuana are as intense as those in an operating room — 500 times more than required for reading.
  • This industry uses $6 billion in energy
  • The electricity used is equivalent to 1% of national electricity consumption, or 2 million average homes
  • In California, indoor growers use 3% of the electricity
  • Off-the-grid marijuana requires 70 gallons of diesel fuel to produce one indoor Cannabis plant and up to 140 gallons if it’s a smaller or less-efficient gasoline generator.

This book brings up the fact that it would be better for the environment to grow Cannabis outdoors, and that there’s a movement up in Humboldt county to do so.

Clearly the sooner marijuana is legalized the better. Growing marijuana in Humboldt County is disaster for the Eel river ecosystem!  Cannibis should be only be grown outdoors in areas with plentiful water.

Alcohol was legalized in Great Depression because cities needing more tax revenue, and given how little reform, if any, has been done to prevent another financial collapse, we may yet sink into a deeper depression. That and legalization in Washington and Colorado, will perhaps finally lead to legalization.

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