Illegal Marijuana Growers Are Damaging The Environment

By Victoria Kim 07/09/19

The use of toxic pesticides on public land has increased dramatically over the past several years—exposing surrounding wildlife and people to their harmful effects.

hand of an illegal marijuana grower

Illegal marijuana growers are inflicting a significant amount of damage on the environment. So far, 160 toxic illegal grow sites have been reclaimed (cleaned) in California. But 830 more are on a waiting list.

Part of the reason why this process is so taxing is the health hazard posed to authorities and cleanup crews who encounter these sites. According to a recent feature in Playboy, the use of toxic pesticides has “increased dramatically over the past several years”—exposing surrounding wildlife and people to their harmful effects.

Federal officials in California have shifted their focus from regulating the legal marijuana industry to cracking down on these toxic illegal grow sites established on public land, according to U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott of the Eastern District of California. “This isn’t about the marijuana, it’s about the damage that’s being done,” said Scott. “What is happening here is illegal under anybody’s law.”

Hurting Wildlife

The threat to the environment, wildlife and public health is concerning. One pesticide of particular concern is carbofuran, said to be so powerful that a quarter-teaspoon can kill a 300-pound bear, according to researcher Mourad Gabriel.

Aside from the chemical contamination of the soil, water, plants and wildlife, illegal growers leave behind thousands of tons of trash that require a helicopter to be airlifted away. Water theft and diversion and land erosion from irrigation are also hurting the natural ecosystem.

Playboy met with Gabriel, fellow Integral Ecology Research Center (IERC) researcher Greta Wengert, and law enforcement officials as they examined one illegal grow site near Plummer Peak in Northern California.

In 2012, carbofuran was detected in 15% of illegal grow sites visited by the IERC. In 2018, that number reached almost 85%. That year, 89% of illegal grow sites were confirmed or strongly suspected to be contaminated with “highly deadly toxic chemicals,” according to the IERC. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, there is no amount of carbofuran that is safe for people.

Illegal marijuana growers are using the highly toxic chemical, and ones like it, to not only deter wildlife from the plants, but authorities as well. A suspect arrested during the 2018 growing season in an illegal grow site in Trinity County “strongly implied that illicit growers are increasing carbofuran use in part to deter enforcement actions, and some have adopted the practice of leaving carbofuran containers and other signs of use in plain view so teams will leave the sites without eradicating the plants,” according to a safety notice issued last September.

This speaks to the significant hazard the pesticide poses to human health. Carbofuran and other toxic pesticide exposure has landed environmental and law enforcement officials in the hospital.

Side Effects From Toxic Pesticides

Studies on the effects of smoking marijuana tainted by toxic pesticides is lacking, as Planet Natural noted. And because marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, pesticide use on marijuana is not regulated by the EPA.

Symptoms of exposure to these pesticides include “nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, labored breathing, cyanosis, convulsions, and unconsciousness” according to one public health alert.

Illegal marijuana grows exist outside of California as well. The presence of illegal drug traffickers has been found in 72 national forests in 21 states. It’s a “major national problem,” said U.S. Forest Service Chief Forester Vicki Christiansen.

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr