The Hidden Costs of Illegal Grow Ops
Trespass grows have a major impact on the environment and others.
While the price of legal cannabis is effected by significant taxes and fees. Illegal grows are associated with many hidden costs as well. The most well-publicized “trespass grows” have been located in the national forests of California and Oregon for years, but they can be found as far east as North Carolina. And officials from the US Forest Service says that they find less than half of those that exist.
Authorities who search and dismantle these grows, often at great cost to their health due to the toxic chemicals often found at such sites, are sometimes accompanied by a far-flung coalition which includes environmentalists, human trafficking activists, local community members and some members of legal cannabis. The recently founded CROP (Cannabis Removal on Public Lands) Project, estimates that 95% of these trespass grows are run by foreign drug traffickers such as the Mexican cartels. The odds are stacked against the authorities, unfortunately — only six law enforcement agents alone are assigned to cover the 2.2 million acres of Shasta-Trinity.
Because of this, a host of ills hover around trespass grows, these in particular:
POISONING OF ENDANGERED SPECIES — AND CONSUMERS
Trespass grows are often magnets for scavengers, such as bears and rodents. So outlaw cultivators use several types of pesticides and poisons barred by the EPA, such as carbofuran and bromethalin, to deter them. However, it’s not just these animals which fall victim to them. Endangered animals such as the Pacific fisher and the Northern spotted owl will also end up taking the bait and then dying. In turn, any other animals which may feast on their carrion and perish as well. Greta Wengert of the Integral Ecology Research Center estimates that 90% of the state’s mountain lions have been exposed to these pesticides.
And it’s not just the animals being poisoned. Anybody who’s smoking a joint or using and extract that was made using flower from these grows is potentially inhaling these pesticides. Again, these pesticides are unsafe for any use whatsoever, and make paraquat, the infamous toxic pesticide sprayed over Mexican cannabis in the ‘70s by US drug warriors, look relatively benign.
Trespass grows in the west are usually situated in remote, difficult-to-access, and fire-scarred areas that are at most 700 feet away from a water source. If they aren’t otherwise discovered by authorities, they are used again and again, so outlaw cultivators will leave behind what they carry in with them for the next harvest. This means that the pesticides, as well as nitrate and phosphate-laden fertilizers, that weren’t used are left to leach into the soil and seep into the creeks, altering the ecology of the land and poisoning fish as well.
Outlaw cultivators require water, and lots of it, so they will often siphon waters from streams or creeks, further stressing the environs. Particularly in the West, which faces extreme water scarcity, growers have gone to extremes to procure this resource. A recent illegal cannabis bust in the desert town of Mojave not only netted 500 plants, but a stolen water truck as well.
Water theft connected to illegal growing has, in particular, plagued the Mojave and Antelope Valley regions — even in Death Valley, where a grow was discovered in April. In March, so much water was being stolen in March of 2021 that the Los Angeles County Fire Department ordered the removal of 100 hydrants. These concerns have grown so severe, that frustrated locals suggested taking the law into their own hands in a town hall meeting with Rep. Mike Garcia.
Outlaw cultivators are incentivized by the lure of apparently easy money, there doesn’t seem to be much money in cleaning up after the mess it makes. There’s often tons of garbage and piping that has to be airlifted out, and partial HAZMAT protocols must be followed to move out the pesticides and rodenticides. Because of the enormous expense and toil of the job, it’s often gone unfinished — in 2019 approximately 2000 former trespass sites in California had still not been cleaned up. This has led the Environmental Protection information Center, to file a letter of intent to sue the US Fish and Wildlife Service for a denial of protections for the Pacific fisher. While the fisher is threatened by more than just trespass grows, the inability of the Fish and Wildlife Service to remediate the habitat from the grows it has disrupted is named in the suit.
However, none of these grows could really exist if there wasn’t a large market for unregulated cannabis. Perhaps the best weapon against them is an informed and motivated consumer base. “The vast majority of people are not even aware this problem exists,” the CROP Project’s Rich McIntyre told The Atlantic’s Annie Lowrey several years ago.” Getting them to know and care could help remediate not only the lands, but the social license upon which cannabis as a movement relies upon to survive.