California is well-known for its “green economy” of electric cars, solar panels, and clean energy solutions. But another kind of green economy has emerged in Northern California ever since voters approved the Medical Marijuana Act twenty years ago. This November, California will vote on whether or not to go one step further and legalize pot as Colorado, Oregon, and Washington have done. Proposition 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA), will legalize marijuana use and impose taxes on its sale and cultivation.
But in addition to its social, economic, health and criminal justice issues, growing marijuana is also a climate issue: the country's $3.5 billion cannabis industry has one of the biggest appetites for energy, consuming one percent of all electricity in the United States, according to one estimate. It also takes a lot of water – something California’s industries already grapple over.
Should California legalize marijuana completely? For Roger Morgan, who heads up the Coalition for a Drug-Free California, the issue is personal. His stepson and stepdaughter both started smoking marijuana as teenagers before graduating to methamphetamines, with disastrous results. “When you live with addiction in your family, and see the devastation to a human being firsthand, it's a compelling fight in my opinion,” says Morgan.
Morgan sees the legalization of medical marijuana as a slippery slope. “If we don't roll back what exists today, I think we’re destroying our youth and our environment,” he says. “And if we don't put a stop to it, I don't know that either one has a future.”
“What's been missing in the war on drugs is, we have not focused on prevention,” Morgan continues. “It’s a kind of a three-legged stool: supply, rehabilitation, and prevention. And it won't stand on two legs.”
For Scott Greacen of Friends of the Eel River, the issue is environmental. The northern California coast is known as the “Emerald Triangle” for its proliferation of cannabis growers. Greacen says that since medical marijuana was legalized in 1996, the number of quasi-legal operations in the area has multiplied. “My focus concerns have really been drawn to the impacts on our watershed and on our fish,” says Greacen. Growers steal water, drill illegal wells and poach on government lands to feed their thirsty crops. And four years of drought hasn’t helped matters. “The combination of extreme drought and water diversions for pot farms, and the impacts of development driven by the profits that can be realized in this incredibly lucrative industry, are really pushing our watersheds over their carrying capacity.”
Passage of Proposition 64 won’t completely solve the problem, says Greacen. Although permits will be required, enforcement will be difficult, and he estimates only ten percent of the industry will be compliant. “Just making people get those permits isn't going to wind up protecting the fish that I care about in our creeks,” he says. “Because it's not going to keep the dirt out, and most importantly it's not going to keep the people who aren’t signing up for permits from going ahead and taking the water and putting the dirt in.”
Michael Sutton, former president of the California Fish and Game Commission, supports legalization, in part because of the potential tax revenue.
“This is the largest cash crop in California, including rice, almonds, all the other crops that we grow in the state,” Sutton says. “Agriculture is very large in California, but marijuana tops them all.” And forcing growers to stay underground – and unregulated – is bad for the state.
“It’s an ecological disaster because illegal growers are cutting down forests and wetlands. They’re applying pesticides illegally, they’re stealing water, they’re poaching the wildlife to eat when they're in the field.”
Regardless of how you feel about the initiative, says Sutton, California stands to gain hundreds of millions of dollars in new tax revenue if it goes through. Revenue from those taxes are slated to go to environmental causes, restoring wetlands, cleaning up illegal grow operations and to children and youth programs.
Morgan still maintains that there is no good way to legalize marijuana use. “The problem we've got is marijuana is still an illicit, very harmful drug,” he warns. “And if we have to make money on the backs of our citizens, we’re no better than the cartels.”
“Legalization is no panacea,” says Sutton. “It's not going to turn this industry into a green industry overnight. But it's a no-brainer on a whole bunch of levels to get this industry, this industry that isn’t going away and is an enormous part of our state's economy, out of the woods, out of the shadows, out of the darkness and into the light of regulation so we can finally make it accountable for its environmental harms and its harms to society.
“Prohibition didn't make alcohol okay overnight,” Sutton concludes, “but it sure made it a lot easier to regulate and tax and control than it was before.”
Photography: Elese Moran