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The 411 (or is it the 420?) on Cannabis Cultivation

April 18, 2018

Grass Roots by Nick JohnsonAs many people on the West Coast celebrate the de facto marijuana holiday, 420, today, the OSU Press celebrates the six-month release of Nick Johnson’s Grass Roots: A History of Cannabis in the American West. In its storied history as a countercultural icon, weed has traditionally been associated with a hippie lifestyle, and more recently with the hipster movement; so it might come as a surprise that the current growth and cultivation of the cannabis plant is incredibly damaging to the environment. In Grass Roots, Johnson’s intoxicating prose takes readers on a trip through the history of cannabis, outlining the environmental degradation that came about thanks to federal marijuana prohibition and highlighting the current efforts to make the marijuana industry more sustainable. To ignite your appetites, below is an excerpt from the book’s introduction, “Grass is Not Greener.”


Introduction: Grass is Not Greener

Full Pipes, Empty Streams

It would be a tall order to find someone more passionate about his local environment than Anthony Silvaggio. Even though it’s a Saturday afternoon in late July, the fiery PhD sits in his office at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California, launching salvos of facts about the local marijuana industry. Silvaggio is a sociologist who studies cannabis farming as part of HSU’s Interdisciplinary Institute for Marijuana Research. He explains that the cannabis plant has been the lifeblood of northern California’s economy, and a hallmark of its culture, for at least the past twenty years. “We wear this on our shoulders,” he says. “This is a badge that we wear. Humboldt County, since the early eighties, has been the place for the best marijuana in the world.”

But soon after Silvaggio arrived in the 1990s, he began to notice some troubling things about the industry, in particular its effects on the region’s true lifeblood—its watersheds. Those watersheds, he says, were first hammered by decades of logging, which silted up rivers and streams and decimated fish populations. Then, just as the environment was showing some signs of recovery, California legalized medical marijuana in 1996, and cultivation of the cash crop blew up on an industrial scale. “At one time it was small mom-and-pop stuff—twenty or thirty plants, no problem. But now it’s hundreds and thousands of plants,” Silvaggio said, visibly agitated. “It’s horrible for the environment. We have an impaired ecosystem here, from over one hundred years of horrible federal and state land management policies…And now we have industrial agriculture on the marijuana plantations.”

In other parts of the country, describing local pot farms as “plantations” might be a tad exaggerated, but not where Silvaggio is from. California’s Humboldt, Mendocino, and Trinity Counties are collectively referred to as the Emerald Triangle, the de facto weed-growing capital of the United States. Here—in stark contrast to the rest of the nation—if you don’t grow, trim, or sell weed, or supply the cannabis industry, people wonder what you’re up to.

The area, however, does not need cannabis to live up to its emerald nickname. From the air, the region appears a stunning deep green, and on the ground, one can easily disappear into the brambles, get lost, and never be seen again. Thick forests cloak the winding paths of the principal rivers—the Eel, Klamath, Mad, and Trinity. The northern California forests are some of the most ecologically diverse in the nation, home to more than twenty different species of conifers alone, as well as what botanists call “relic” plants—plants that have been extinct in other parts of the nation for more than a million years…

Cannabis, a sun-loving, wind-pollinated annual that thrives in open landscapes, is not native to the region and finds no natural niche within these dense forests. But it does have a long and storied relationship with humans, who came to this landscape in record numbers beginning in the mid-twentieth century. They felled trees to make room for homesteads and towns, and clear-cut the old-growth forests to support the nation’s postwar construction boom. These activities effectively prepared the landscape for the introduction of the psychoactive herb, first brought by homesteading hippies in the 1960s and 1970s. As Silvaggio notes, these first couple generations of growers had little impact on the local ecology, but today satellite images show these forests pockmarked with unnatural clearings cut out just for cannabis…

In sum, the watersheds of the Eel and other rivers in northern California are on life support, and cannabis growers are helping pull the plug. Of course, cannabis farmers are not the only guilty party here—industrial logging and other farming activity pose similar threats to salmon—and growers are operating in a legal environment that is as unclear and uniquely hostile as it is profitable. Unlike other farmers in the region, most weed growers try not to talk too much about their crop—cultivation of even one cannabis plant is a federal felony punishable by up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Others will tell you that their plants are legal, destined for medical marijuana patients or for the state’s recreational market, which voters approved in 2016 and is just beginning to take shape as this book is being published. But in reality, only a fraction—it is impossible to tell how much—of their product will be used by California patients or buyers in legitimate dispensaries. The rest is funneled into the nation’s massive black market in drug cannabis, an industry with an estimated value that varies considerably but is rarely reported to be under $10 billion.

As if outdoor cannabis cultivation wasn’t putting enough stress on local watersheds, the region’s cash crop is helping to strangle the Eel River in another, far subtler way—indoor cultivation. Powered by a symphony of fossil-fuel fixtures such as high-intensity lights, air conditioners, and generators, today’s indoor cannabis growing began during a crackdown on outdoor growing during the 1980s and evolved into a sophisticated botanical art. Growers found that they could hybridize different varieties of the plant to emphasize certain desirable attributes, such as greater potency, a shorter growth habit or particular taste or smell, or even a distinct kind of high.

The indoor revolution turned American cannabis into some of the most highly regarded weed in the world, but plugging in to produce a premium pot crop had its own environmental consequences. In 2012, a study published in the Journal of Energy Policy found that indoor cannabis production accounted for 3 percent of California’s total electrical usage and pumped as much CO2 into the atmosphere as three million American cars. This is but a drop in the ocean of CO2 currently released into the atmosphere due to human activity, but it also represents data from just one state in a nation with hundreds of thousands of indoor cannabis grows. More importantly, since that report was published, Colorado, Washington, Alaska, Oregon, and California have all legalized—and in many ways encouraged—the indoor production of cannabis with barely a second thought.

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