Nothing green about it: Illicit cannabis growing

This had never happened to me before, although as a 16-year old boy I had fantasized about it far too often. Now in my mid-30s, I stood contemplating this stroke of dumb luck I would have killed for in high school, thinking, “I should probably pass.”

You know what I’m talking about, don’t you?

 I’m not talking about some kind of sexcapade. I’m talking about finding a Ziplock bag full of weed.

USFS_Trespass site photo_Bait Block.jpg: Rodenticides, traps and pesticides found at an ilicit grow on public lands.

On an ordinary day last fall, I stumbled upon a bag of cannabis while walking alongside a creek. It was practically smiling up at me. I unsealed the unmarked bag and took a quick sniff, confirming that it was the wacky tobaccy (as they sometimes call it in country music circles).

I then had three thoughts in rapid succession:

  1. “Yay! free weed!”
  2. “Why didn’t this ever happen to me in high school?”
  3. “Wait, weed is legal, super cheap, and you don’t know where this stuff came from.”

    USFS_campsite II.jpg: Campsite located by an illicit grow. Remediation costs for a single site can be tens of thousands of dollars and the Forest Service’s remediation budget has declined in recent years.

On the heels of that third thought came a single word: Carbofuran.

I had read about carbofuran for the first time only days earlier in a Westword article featuring the U.S. Attorney for the District of Colorado. A highly toxic pesticide and nerve agent banned throughout the U.S., carbofuran is used in a lot of illegal marijuana grows, where it often leeches into the soil and nearby streams. If you ever roll up your sleeves and look into the many ways illegal cannabis growing harms the environment and endangers public health, you’ll hear a lot about carbofuran.

One of the many benefits cannabis legalization has brought is more sustainable growing practices. Through a combination of market forces and regulation, we’re seeing much greater resource efficiency and fewer pollutants used in cannabis cultivation. Growers incur tens of thousands of licensing and compliance fees for environmental impact studies, water use permits and pesticide testing. They aren’t doing everything perfectly, but they aren’t killing anybody.

USFS_Trespass site photo_dead critter.jpg: Illicit growers lace canned tuna and other items with rodenticides, often of a neurotoxic variety illegal in the U.S.

Faced with the combined pressure from new regulations and falling wholesale prices for flower, cultivators are learning to make more efficient use of water and energy to remain profitable. Conversely, consider this:

  • Marijuana Business Daily reported last August that in California, “nine of every 10 [illegal] farms raided contained traces of … potentially lethal pesticides.”
  • Illegal grows on public lands have wreaked havoc on fragile ecosystems due to water diversion, biological waste (poop), erosion, and toxic rodenticides and pesticides.
  • A 2012 article in the Journal of Energy Policy reported that a kilogram of cannabis, grown indoors by conventional means, is associated with 4600 kg of CO2 emissions. Nationwide, it’s like adding three million cars to the road.
USFS_Trespass site photo_stream.jpg: A stream near an illicit grow site.

Growing cannabis illegally is no longer cool, bro.

I think the War on Drugs is among the stupidest things ever concocted, but there is all sorts of crap wrong with growing cannabis illegally in a jurisdiction where it’s legal. I would never have foreseen this bizarre twist on reality where I would side with law enforcement over someone growing marijuana in a townhouse. But here we are.

I don’t care that much that illicit growers are cheating on taxes. I do care that they don’t give a rip about environmental stewardship or public health.

Furthermore, in many cases, they’re growing product for Mexican dung cartels. So even if they’re soft and fluffy nonviolent drug offenders, they’re complicit in a violent black market that parallels a perfectly legit one.

Clearly, legalization has turned me into a huge square. But I don’t have a principled objection to illegality as much as an objection to gambling with people’s health and polluting our soil, water and air. The landscape has changed. The black market is no longer justified because it’s no longer necessary. There are responsible, ethical businesspeople growing cannabis safely and legally, not poisoning wildlife, not endangering user’s health, and paying taxes that support public schools and infrastructure.

People who gut houses, illegally tap water lines, use banned fertilizers and pesticides, and sell the product to criminal organizations aren’t idealists or rebels. They’re pricks. They don’t care about the environment, they don’t care about the communities they live in, they don’t care if their weed has residual pesticides that harm consumers. In fairness, some of them probably do an okay job. Even so, if I were paying tens of thousands in licensing and quality assurance costs, I’d have a problem with growers who evade them.

That mystery bag of weed I stumbled upon? It went against every instinct I had, but I tossed it. I wouldn’t even have felt comfortable composting it.

John Garvey is a copywriter and marketing consultant in Fort Collins, specializing in ancillary cannabis and social enterprises. He helps businesses shorten their sales cycles and win high-value clients. Reach out anytime, but please don’t tell his parents how much he knows about weed.

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