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Illegal Pot Farms Are Destroying Public Lands

It was the largest pot bust in one of the most weed-friendly states in the country. In the spring of 2011 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 in remote areas 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 isolated 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 U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, which of course has many problems of its own, says such cases as the one in Oregon, illustrates a trend that is spreading across the country. And even with recent legalization efforts in states like Washington and Colorado, grow operations on public lands are likely to increase as long as marijuana continues to be illegal in most states.

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 assert 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 a recent two year period, 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. Last August Feds seized 578,000 marijuana plants in eastern California that valued over $1 billion. The two-month operation that targeted pot farms on federal land and cost tax-payers millions to carry out.

It’s not just public lands that are being used for clandestine pot farms. In the summer of 2011, 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.

“It was sad to see those nice redwood trees down,” said Sonoma County Sheriff’s Sgt. Mike Raasch after looking over the wreckage.

A large number of the marijuana gardens are located up and down the West Coast, with a majority sprouting up in California. The High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA), a federal program that oversees drug enforcement across that country, reported in June 2010 that “California produces more marijuana than Mexico.” Officials estimate that in 2009, California’s seized plants would have had a retail value of $17.8 billion. The cost to taxpayers to clean up the razed lands where the weed was grown reached as much as $1 million per farm.

In 2010 HIDTA estimated that almost 121 square miles of land was being used throughout California to grow illegal pot. As the report noted, “For every acre that is ‘Impacted’ (the actual growing area) there are another two to 10 aces that are considered ‘Constrained.’ The Constrained area is that which is marked by trails, waterlines, campsites and other areas trampled by growers … The City of Sacramento is 97 square miles in size and the amount of area used for growing marijuana exceeds the size of the state’s Capital city … Why do the drug trafficking organizations grow so much marijuana in California? The answer is simply the demand by users and unrestrained profits.”

Sequoia National Park, well known for being home to some of the world’s most gigantic trees, is also residence to hundreds of pot growers during the prime harvesting months of April to October. Several parts of the park are closed to visitors during this time, including the pristine Kaweah River drainage, where drug cartels are cultivating massive amounts of pot. These operations, which would place the industry high on NASDAQ if it were a single legal company, are by no means environmentally benign.

“It’s so big that we have to focus our resources on one or two areas at a time, because otherwise it’s beyond our scope,” Sequoia’s special agent assigned to the ordeal, told the Los Angles Times. It is estimated that California’s marijuana trade accounts for $14 billion in annual sales.

Such environmental impacts have placed many marijuana advocates into one of two camps: Those who want to keep pot illegal so they can continue to profit without taxation and regulation, and those who want to legalize the plant in order to reduce these sorts of environmental impacts — not to mention incarceration associated with non-violent drug crimes.

“This kind of destruction, lack of respect for nature and the area, and elaborate scheming to hide their efforts is only possible because marijuana remains a profitable, underground drug rather than being a profitable, legal one,” wrote Aaron Turpen for CannaCentral following the incident at Korbel Winery. “Legalize marijuana and then the need to hide it — destroying old growth trees and a natural setting in the process — goes away.”

Not all agree with Turpen’s assessment. When Californians voted on Prop 19, the initiative to legalize marijuana in November 2010, the state’s main pot-growing region actually voted against the measure. The weed-rich “Emerald Triangle” counties of Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity all said no to legal pot.

There is good reason why these illegal growers (not to be confused with legal, medicinal producers) embrace libertarian ideals when it comes to their bustling industry: without government involvement they can rake in millions in profit. No environmental studies have to be done and no taxes will ever be paid. The only thing these growers have to worry about is being raided by drug enforcement cops.

President Obama, while admitting to have toked a little ganja years ago, has taken up Bush’s hard-line stance against legalization of the herb. Recently the president dismissed any medical value of the substance, and in a Drug Control Strategy report, the White House explained why marijuana ought to remain classified as a dangerous, illegal drug:

We have many proven methods for reducing the demand for drugs. Keeping drugs illegal reduces their availability and lessens willingness to use them. That is why this Administration firmly opposes the legalization of marijuana or any other illicit drug. Legalizing drugs would increase accessibility and encourage promotion and acceptance of use. Diagnostic, laboratory, clinical, and epidemiological studies clearly indicate that marijuana use is associated with dependence, respiratory and mental illness, poor motor performance, and cognitive impairment, among other negative effects, and legalization would only exacerbate these problems.

Many of those who want to see pot legalized envision a future where their drug of choice is viewed more like wine than heroin. They want to know where their marijuana is coming from and how it was grown. Many want it to be organic and eco-friendly. They may even want to visit farmers and take a tour of the crops. However, as long as weed remains illegal, they claim, ecologically damaging farms on public and private lands will only become more prevalent. Violence over market share will ensue and more taxpayer dollars will be wasted.

Longtime legalization advocate, Orange County Superior Court Judge James Gray, estimates that legalizing pot could save California at least $1 billion a year by reducing arrests and prosecution, with that number only increasing if other states are taken into consideration.

“We couldn’t make this drug any more available if we tried,” Judge Gray said during the battle over California’s Proposition 19. “Not only do we have those problems, along with glamorizing it by making it illegal, but we also have the crime and corruption that go along with it … Unfortunately, every society in the history of mankind has had some form of mind-altering, sometimes addictive substances to use, to misuse, abuse or get addicted to. Get used to it. They’re here to stay. So let’s try to reduce those harms, and right now we couldn’t do it worse if we tried.”

Joshua Frank, Managing Editor of CounterPunch, is the author of Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush, and along with Jeffrey St. Clair, the editor of Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland, and of Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. Hopeless is now available in Kindle format. He can be reached at brickburner@gmail.com.

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JOSHUA FRANK is managing editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book, co-authored with Jeffrey St. Clair, is Big Heat: Earth on the Brink. He can be reached at joshua@counterpunch.org. You can troll him on Twitter @joshua__frank

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