Oregon's Environmental Support for Legalization

Two major Op-Ed pieces from environmentalists in Oregon raised powerful environmental justifications for Measure 91, the legalization ballot initiative that passed on November 4th.

Rich Fairbanks, retired Forest Service, in the Capital Press

Oregon League of Conservation Voters in the Bend Bulletin

Why Environmental Groups Should Be Talking About Marijuana Legalization

Illegal marijuana growers threaten our national forests by polluting, clearing land, and diverting entire streams for irrigation. Legal regulation would greatly decrease the environmental harms caused by marijuana. It would also benefit kids by decreasing their access to marijuana, their use of marijuana, and the drug’s potency. Now that a majority of the American public supports legalization,[1] environmental groups can protect the environment and increase their visibility without sacrificing their reputation by publicly endorsing marijuana legalization.

Harm to the environment

Marijuana prohibition incentivizes illegal marijuana growers to set up toxic grow sites deep in our protected areas with no regard for the natural environment. The impact of these operations is immense:

1.     Forests – In 2014, the Forestry Service reported illegal marijuana cultivation in 22 states and 72 national forests, an increase of 2 states and 5 national forests since 2011.[2] Marijuana is also grown in many national parks and areas of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land.[3] 46% of all domestically eradicated marijuana is found upon public lands.[4]

2.     Pollution – During Operation Full Court Press, a three-week effort to clear marijuana growers out of Mendocino National Forest in 2011, law enforcement found 38 weapons, 2,000 pounds of processed marijuana, 600,000 marijuana plants, 5,400 pounds of fertilizer, 260 pounds of pesticides, 40 miles of plastic irrigation pipe, and 26 tons of trash. 95% of the 169 individuals arrested during the operation were undocumented immigrants tied to Mexican drug cartels.[5] Many pesticides and other chemicals found at illegal grow operations are banned in the U.S.[6] According to U.S. Forest Service researchers, “the contamination occurring at illegal marijuana cultivation sites is more akin to leaking chemical weapon stockpiles than typical use or misuse of agricultural products.”[7]

3.     Endangered Species – Illegal growers protect their plants with anticoagulant rodenticide (AR), a controlled pesticide that kills rodents slowly through internal bleeding.[8] Since AR slowly weakens rodents over one to two weeks, it has been building up in the bodies of predators that consume this weakened prey. 85% of the nearly-endangered California fisher population tests positive for these rodenticides, which have already killed seven of the roughly 300 remaining fishers.[9] On the Hoopa Valley Reservation, where the fisher population has been studied extensively, this is the number one cause of death.[10] 40% of the Barred Owl population has been exposed to AR, and researchers expect a similar rate for the endangered Northern spotted owls, two of which have already been found dead. Biologists and Fish and Wildlife Service officials have limited their usual surveys of these endangered animals after being shot at by armed guards from marijuana grow sites.[11] Scientists believe that the rodenticide epidemic is also threatening the Sierra Nevada red fox, California condor and Humboldt marten, since they consume the poisoned rodents.[12] Growers also threaten California tiger salamanders and coho salmon by diverting water and dumping pesticides, fertilizer and sediment in waterways.[13] The Mattole watershed, where millions of dollars have been spent to protect the coho salmon, currently hosts over 200 illegal grow sites.[14]

4.     Wildfires – The La Brea Wildfire of 2009 was ignited by a cooking fire at a marijuana grow site deep in the Los Padres National Forest. It destroyed 89,000 acres of forest and cost over $35 million to suppress.[15]

5.     Public Safety – In California, marijuana growers killed 6 people in 2011 and 9 in 2010.[16] The National Forest Service reported in 2011 that law enforcement officials killed 9 growers in firefights.[17] Armed guards at marijuana plantations are now so common[18] that both the National Park Service and Forest Service warn visitors about how to handle an encounter with them.[19]

6.     Climate change – Marijuana eradication efforts have also pushed many growers indoors, where they run up massive electric bills on lighting, fans and air filters.[20] A single standard grow house is estimated to consume 20 times as much as an average household.[21] In California alone, electricity used for marijuana cultivation is estimated at 3% of the state’s total.[22]

Impact of Marijuana Legalization

1.     License production – Under  legal regulation, state and/or local governments would issue permits for grow sites on industrial land, carry out environmental impact evaluations, monitor pollution and waste management, and restrict water usage. If the state licensed marijuana production like tobacco, nobody would grow marijuana in Mendocino National Forest just like they do not grow tobacco there.

2.     Control impacts  – As a result, legalization would end the pollution, water diversion, deforestation and violence on public lands caused by marijuana cultivation. The state could minimize the environmental impacts associated with marijuana cultivation by creating a strong regulatory system.

3.     Reduce cultivation – Since law enforcement officials locate and eradicate 30-50% of marijuana planted domestically, growers plant more to compensate. Marijuana legalization would not only stop cultivation on public lands, it would significantly reduce the total amount of marijuana cultivation.[23]

Marijuana Prohibition Also Hurts Kids

Many people feel that we have to suffer the negative environmental impacts of marijuana prohibition in order to keep drugs away from young people. But if you want to prevent kids from abusing marijuana, you should support legalizing and regulating marijuana like we do cigarettes and alcohol. If that doesn’t make sense to you, read these three facts:

1.     Regulation reduces drug access– For almost two decades, high school students have reported that it is easier for them to buy marijuana than beer.[24] Liquor stores refuse to sell to minors because, unlike illegal marijuana dealers, they have a valuable license at stake. As a result, kids have an easier time buying marijuana under prohibition than they would under legal regulation.

2.     Regulation reduces drug usage – Over the last 20 years, despite all our efforts to prohibit marijuana, the fraction of high school students using it has stayed constant. Over the same period, the percentage of high schoolers using cigarettes has fallen by 50%.[25] Many people assume that prohibition is more effective at reducing drug use than legal regulation. Yet legal regulation of cigarettes is succeeding in reducing use, while marijuana prohibition is failing.

3.     Prohibition increases drug abuse – More people drank hard alcohol during alcohol prohibition than before or afterward.[26] Bootleggers brought in liquor, not beer.[27] Drug traffickers, like bootleggers, smuggle more potent drugs to maximize profits. Over the last twenty years, the potency of marijuana has almost tripled.[28] We use laws to control the potency of alcohol and cigarettes, but we have no control whatsoever over the illegal marijuana market.

So legal regulation of marijuana would be better for kids, because it would allow us to reduce kids' access, kids' use, and the drug's potency. Legalization may sound scary, but it simply means taking the marijuana market out of our streets and schools and putting it in licensed, heavily regulated stores. Prohibition doesn’t eliminate marijuana sales; it means that no law-abiding business will sell it, ensuring that criminals are selling it on the street and in schools.

Time to Join the Movement

There has been a dramatic sea change in public opinion on marijuana legalization. A majority of the American public now supports full legalization, according to the latest Gallup and Pew Research polls.[29] Colorado and Washington have already legalized marijuana at the state level, and within a year voters will weigh in on legalization initiatives in Alaska and Oregon. Meanwhile, both the Obama administration and the Republican-controlled House of Representatives have agreed to stop federal raids in states that have set their own marijuana policies.

This is a crucial moment for environmental groups to claim a seat at the table to ensure that the new systems of legal regulation uphold their interests. Environmental groups’ endorsement of legalization would carry significant clout with voters. In addition to removing marijuana from national forests and parks, environmental groups could use their endorsement of legalization to negotiate for stronger environmental regulation of marijuana cultivation. It is time to let the American people know that marijuana legalization and environmentalism can go hand in hand.


[1] http://www.people-press.org/2013/04/04/majority-now-supports-legalizing-marijuana/ http://www.gallup.com/poll/165539/first-time-americans-favor-legalizing-marijuana.aspx

[2] http://www.ussc.gov/sites/default/files/pdf/amendment-process/public-hearings-and-meetings/20140313/Testimony_Boehm.pdf http://www.drugcaucus.senate.gov/hearing-12-7-11/Ferrell-Testimony.pdf

[3] http://www.doi.gov/ocl/hearings/112/MarijuanaCultivation_120711.cfm

[4] http://www.whitehouse.gov/ondcp/initiatives-and-policy-priorities

[5] https://www.hsdl.org/?view&did=695923

[6] http://www.ussc.gov/sites/default/files/pdf/amendment-process/public-hearings-and-meetings/20140313/Testimony_Boehm.pdf

[7] http://www.fs.fed.us/psw/publications/thompson/psw_2013_thompson001.pdf

[8] http://www2.epa.gov/rodenticides/restrictions-rodenticide-products

[9] https://nrm.dfg.ca.gov/FileHandler.ashx?DocumentID=80159

[10] http://www.fws.gov/endangered/map/ESA_success_stories/CA/CA_story4/index.html

[11] http://news.wildlife.org/twp/2013-spring/silent-forests/

[12] http://www.nbcbayarea.com/news/local/Illegal-Marijuana-Growers-National-Parks-Trashed-Animals-Toxic-229943491.html https://nrm.dfg.ca.gov/FileHandler.ashx?DocumentID=80159

[13] http://www.thenation.com/article/176955/pot-growing-bad-environment# http://www.thefix.com/content/marijuana-soil-environment-rivers90860 http://kymkemp.com/BestManagementPractices/

[14] http://www.dfg.ca.gov/Report/2012_Text.html

[15] https://www.hsdl.org/?view&did=695923

[16] https://www.hsdl.org/?view&did=695923

[17] https://www.hsdl.org/?view&did=695923

[18] http://www.justice.gov/archive/ndic/pubs22/22486/22486p.pdf

[19] http://www.fs.fed.us/blogs/be-prepared-when-visiting-our-national-forests-%E2%80%94-what-do-if-you-encounter-marijuana http://www.nps.gov/deva/planyourvisit/upload/DEVA-Marijuana-Safety.pdf

[20] http://www.justice.gov/archive/ndic/pubs37/37035/purpose.htm#Overview

[21] http://www.pressdemocrat.com/csp/mediapool/sites/PressDemocrat/News/story.csp?cid=2237727&sid=555&fid=181

[22] http://www.thenation.com/article/176955/pot-growing-bad-environment?page=0,1

[23] http://www.justice.gov/archive/ndic/pubs22/22486/22486p.pdf

[24] http://www.casacolumbia.org/addiction-research/reports/national-survey-american-attitudes-substance-abuse-teens-2012

[25] http://www.drugabuse.gov/related-topics/trends-statistics/infographics/monitoring-future-2013-survey-results

[26] http://www.prohibitionrepeal.com/history/bb_roaring.asp

[27] http://www.cedro-uva.org/lib/levine.alcohol.html

[28] http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/ondcp/issues-content/marijuana_and_public_health_one_pager_-_final.pdf

[29] http://www.people-press.org/2013/04/04/majority-now-supports-legalizing-marijuana/ http://www.gallup.com/poll/165539/first-time-americans-favor-legalizing-marijuana.aspx


Other Publications

  • War of the Weed: The Los Angeles Times highlights the environmental harms of illegal marijuana cultivation

  • Eric E. Sterling explains why the Los Angeles Times article means that we should legalize marijuana. 

  • Eric E. Sterling explains more reasons why drug prohibition hurts the environment

Contact Environmental Organizations

Click on the links below to ask these nonprofits to start looking into the impact of marijuana legalization.

Union of Concerned Scientists

Sierra Club

National Wildlife Federation

National Resources Defense Council