California has finally decided to regulate medical marijuana, taking steps to end a two-decade-long free-for-all that has been blamed for worsening the state's drought and causing environmental damage, though it remains to be seen whether enough of the state's black market growers will abide by the new laws to make a significant impact.
Governor Jerry Brown signed three bills into law on Friday that collectively amount to a massive change for the federally illegal industry, which is currently governed in California by a motley collection of city and county laws that range from stringent to wildly permissive.
The new laws passed by the state legislature treat weed like an agricultural crop, and create a new Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation (BUMMR) — pronounced "bummer" by some legislators — that will issue mandatory licenses for everyone in the industry. But perhaps the most significant development is a move by lawmakers to address the egregious environmental damage that the industry has caused in the state's forests.
Some pot farmers use dangerous chemicals to protect their crops from pests and enhance growth. Under the new regime, the state's estimated 50,000 growers will be required to abide by the same regulations as farmers that grow strawberries, avocados, and other types of produce.
The new state laws also target weed farmers who illegally siphon water from streams and other waterways, a practice that has been blamed for worsening California's record drought. Scott Bauer, a senior environmental scientist at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, suggested that illicit pot growers were responsible for some creeks running dry earlier than usual over the summer.
Bauer and his team of seven are responsible for monitoring the watersheds inhabited by protected species, such as Coho and Chinook salmon. The small team is technically responsible for monitoring the entire state, but Bauer hopes that the new legislation, through licensing fees, will fund a larger effort to hunt down water thieves and fine them.
"We mapped every watershed in 2009, 2010, and in 2012, and in our study the amount of diversion has grown from 70 to 104 percent in every study watershed," Bauer said. "The vast majority of growers, 95 to 98 percent of the marijuana industry, have not formally applied for water rights."
Weed industry insiders have mixed feelings about the new laws.
"The days of sucking the creeks dry, the days of mindless environmental destruction are over," said Tim Blake, organizer of the Emerald Cup, an annual marijuana competition in Sonoma County. "There's no excuse anymore. But some in the cannabis world think it's the end… Wake up and realize you aren't guaranteed to be a third-generation outlaw."
California's illegal growers will likely face even more pressure to go legit next year if state voters approve one of several potential ballot initiatives to create a legal market for recreational sales, following the trail blazed by Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, and Washington, DC.
'The days of sucking the creeks dry, the days of mindless environmental destruction are over.'
California's approach to pot differs in a few ways from the other states that have legalized the drug. Perhaps the most significant is that the state will treat weed like a crop and not, as in Colorado's case, as a sort of industrial activity. Like in Washington state, marijuana growers, processors, and sellers will have to remain separate entities in most cases, a policy that makes it more difficult for large companies to vertically integrate and take over the industry.
Cities and counties across California can choose to establish rules that apply only within their borders. The laws are mostly set to take effect in 2018.
Despite the fact that the legislative package will bring many currently operating under the radar into legal compliance, the new regulations the black market operations that are illegally using public and tribal land. Such farms wreak havoc on the ecosystems where they are set up.
Mourad Gabriel, a wildlife disease ecologist at the University of California, Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, has published research that suggests a species of weasel called Pacific fishers have been eating rodents poisoned by weed farmers. The finding, he said, suggests that there's more damage to other species going on as well — the weasels are the tip of the iceberg.
Criminal syndicates use fertilizers, insecticides, and pesticides that harm anything organic in the vicinity of the grow-op. Irrigation infrastructure, human waste, and trash further exacerbate the impact of illegal grows, which also steal water from nearby sources.
Bauer, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife scientist, said that so far this year, his teams have visited 200 sites suspected of diverting water. And according to DEA data, authorities have raided 2,013 outdoor grow sites in California, including many that have operated for three or more years in the same location on federal or state land. Thousands of other black market grows are said to go unnoticed — and likely won't be affected by the new laws.
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Watch the VICE News documentary Flooding Fields in California's Drought: