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5 Reasons Legalizing Pot Is Good for the Planet

The movement to legalize marijuana use and cultivation is picking up steam across the U.S. In California medical marijuana has been legal since 1996, while recreational use—though still not legal—is widely accepted with possession of small amounts a minor misdemeanor. Since then, multiple other states have followed on California's footsteps in legalizing the popular plant or at least decriminalizing it.

Marijuana cultivation can stress the environment, but regulation is difficult when its legal status isn't clear.
Photo credit: Shutterstock

But it's still technically a banned drug at the federal level. So rules governing its use, distribution and growing are uneven, and unevenly enforced. And, according to a new scientific study, that's not good for the environment.

A team of scientists from the Nature Conservancy, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and University of California Berkeley published a study this week, High Time for Conservation: Adding the Environment to the Debate on Marijuana Liberalization, in the journal Bioscience, explaining the ways in which a consistent national policy on pot could benefit the environment.

"The policy debate, which has focused on the public health and criminal outcomes of liberalization, has largely neglected another notable source of societal harm arising from widespread marijuana use: the environmental harm associated with its commercial-scale cultivation," it says.

Its main point: growing marijuana has a series of negative environmental impacts that are worsened by black market and semi-legal growing, which make regulations harder to enact and enforce. By making it fully legal, regulations could be enacted governing its cultivation to mitigate these impacts. It points out that even in California, where 60-70 percent of the pot consumed in the U.S. is grown, black market production flourishes.

"Like all forms of agriculture, marijuana cultivation has implications for natural resources that should be part of the current and future policy discussion," the report explains. "However, regulation designed to mitigate environmental harm is more difficult to implement for marijuana cultivation than for other agricultural activities because of its unique and evolving legal status. Although many U.S. states are legalizing recreational and medical marijuana possession and use, it remains illegal at the federal level, putting the industry in a semi-legal gray area in these states. This status separates marijuana from fully legal agricultural commodities and greatly complicates regulation of the industry."

"The combination of limited water resources, a water-hungry crop, and illegal cultivation in sensitive ecosystems means that marijuana cultivation can have environmental impacts that are disproportionately large given the area under production," it concludes.

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High Time for Conservation enumerates ways in which marijuana cultivation stresses the environment, stresses that could be more easily managed with complete legalization.

1. Growing pot is extremely water-intensive, a major issue in a drought-stricken state like California. Outdoor-grown marijuana in California's north coast region requires about twice as much water as the region's other major irrigated crop, wine grapes. "We're only starting to get a handle on these numbers," said one of the study's co-authors, Berkeley ecohydrologst Sally Thompson. "This is criminal activity, so it's dangerous to monitor the impact. But even if the numbers are off, we are still talking about significant quantities of water." Meanwhile, indoor cultivation is an energy hog; it "can require extensive energy inputs with potentially negative effects on climate," the study says.

2. That water use can impact endangered species. "Compared with more established forms of agriculture on the north coast, where abundant winter stream flow is sometimes captured and stored locally in ponds or tanks for later summer use, marijuana cultivation is typically irrigated with summer and fall surface water diversions directly from headwater streams and springs," the report points out. "These diversions are localized in smaller, sensitive watersheds that are hotspots of biodiversity—and particularly aquatic biodiversity. Surface water diversions for marijuana cultivation have been documented to significantly reduce or eliminate already low stream flow during California’s Mediterranean-type dry summer season, particularly during drought years, and therefore threaten the survival of rare and endangered salmonids, amphibians and other animals."

3. The use of pesticides on marijuana plantations pollute watersheds and is a threat to wildlife. "Pesticides, used heavily in black-market cultivation on public lands, make their way into terrestrial food chains, posing significant risks to mammalian and avian predators," says the report.  More than 80 percent of dead Pacific fishers in the region were found to have been exposed to rodenticides used to control rats in black-market marijuana cultivation, it points out. And "The heavy use of pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers and petroleum fuels in both semi-legal and black-market cultivation can also contaminate watersheds."

4. The built infrastructure of marijuana cultivation can present a threat to the surrounding environment. "Land terracing, road construction and forest clearing for both semi-legal and black-market marijuana plantations remove native vegetation and increase erosion," write the authors. "Erosion increases fine-sediment loading into streams, damaging spawning and rearing habitat for salmon and trout, such as federally endangered coho salmon."

5. Humans leave their mark on the ecosystem too, an impact likely to be exacerbated by trying to avoid detection in black-market growing. Trespassing and camping on public or tribal lands for months at a time, they poach wildlife for both sport and sustenance. In addition, "Nonbiodegradable trash and human excrement are commonly dumped around black-market marijuana cultivation sites on public and tribal lands."

The report says that the "clandestine nature of the business" makes it hard to get a grasp on the facts surrounding marijuana production in California and that semi-legal status "greatly complicates local authority to regulate the medical market and sets the industry apart from traditional agriculture." Further, the conflict between state and federal standards "encourages secrecy and invisibility among producers for both the semi-legal medical and black markets, leading to lower levels of voluntary compliance with existing environmental regulation."

The report authors suggest that as legalization spreads, some of the tax revenues collected by the states should be aimed at preventing and mitigating the environmental impacts of cultivation.

"In order to overcome barriers to participation, however, incentive strategies will likely only be feasible where the legal status of production is clarified," they say. "The current levels of ambiguity and secrecy surrounding the industry impede the revelation of associated environmental impacts, as well as the creation and implementation of solutions. "

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By Sherry H-Y. Chou, Aarti Sarwal and Neha S. Dangayach

The patient in the case report (let's call him Tom) was 54 and in good health. For two days in May, he felt unwell and was too weak to get out of bed. When his family finally brought him to the hospital, doctors found that he had a fever and signs of a severe infection, or sepsis. He tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection. In addition to symptoms of COVID-19, he was also too weak to move his legs.

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We are neurologists specializing in intensive care and leading studies related to neurological complications from COVID-19. Given the occurrence of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in prior pandemics with other corona viruses like SARS and MERS, we are investigating a possible link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19 and tracking published reports to see if there is any link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19.

Some patients may not seek timely medical care for neurological symptoms like prolonged headache, vision loss and new muscle weakness due to fear of getting exposed to virus in the emergency setting. People need to know that medical facilities have taken full precautions to protect patients. Seeking timely medical evaluation for neurological symptoms can help treat many of these diseases.

What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Most commonly, the injury involves the protective sheath, or myelin, that wraps nerves and is essential to nerve function.

Without the myelin sheath, signals that go through a nerve are slowed or lost, which causes the nerve to malfunction.

To diagnose Guillain-Barre Syndrome, neurologists perform a detailed neurological exam. Due to the nerve injury, patients often may have loss of reflexes on examination. Doctors often need to perform a lumbar puncture, otherwise known as spinal tap, to sample spinal fluid and look for signs of inflammation and abnormal antibodies.

Studies have shown that giving patients an infusion of antibodies derived from donated blood or plasma exchange – a process that cleans patients' blood of harmful antibodies - can speed up recovery. A very small subset of patients may need these therapies long-term.

The majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients improve within a few weeks and eventually can make a full recovery. However, some patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome have lingering symptoms including weakness and abnormal sensations in arms and/or legs; rarely patients may be bedridden or disabled long-term.

Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Pandemics

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, many neurologic specialists have been on the lookout for potentially serious nervous system complications such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

Though Guillain-Barre Syndrome is rare, it is well known to emerge following bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter jejuni, a common cause of food poisoning, and a multitude of viral infections including the flu virus, Zika virus and other coronaviruses.

Studies showed an increase in Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases following the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, suggesting a possible connection. The presumed cause for this link is that the body's own immune response to fight the infection turns on itself and attacks the peripheral nerves. This is called an "autoimmune" condition. When a pandemic affects as many people as our current COVID-19 crisis, even a rare complication can become a significant public health problem. That is especially true for one that causes neurological dysfunction where the recovery takes a long time and may be incomplete.

The first reports of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in COVID-19 pandemic originated from Italy, Spain and China, where the pandemic surged before the U.S. crisis.

Though there is clear clinical suspicion that COVID-19 can lead to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, many important questions remain. What are the chances that someone gets Guillain-Barre Syndrome during or following a COVID-19 infection? Does Guillain-Barre Syndrome happen more often in those who have been infected with COVID-19 compared to other types of infections, such as the flu?

The only way to get answers is through a prospective study where doctors perform systematic surveillance and collect data on a large group of patients. There are ongoing large research consortia hard at work to figure out answers to these questions.

Understanding the Association Between COVID-19 and Guillain-Barre Syndrome

While large research studies are underway, overall it appears that Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare but serious phenomenon possibly linked to COVID-19. Given that more than 10.7 million cases have been reported for COVID-19, there have been 10 reported cases of COVID-19 patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far – only two reported cases in the U.S., five in Italy, two cases in Iran and one from Wuhan, China.

It is certainly possible that there are other cases that have not been reported. The Global Consortium Study of Neurological Dysfunctions in COVID-19 is actively underway to find out how often neurological problems like Guillain-Barre Syndrome is seen in hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Also, just because Guillain-Barre Syndrome occurs in a patient diagnosed with COVID-19, that does not imply that it was caused by the virus; this still may be a coincident occurrence. More research is needed to understand how the two events are related.

Due to the pandemic and infection-containment considerations, diagnostic tests, such as a nerve conduction study that used to be routine for patients with suspected Guillain-Barre Syndrome, are more difficult to do. In both U.S. cases, the initial diagnosis and treatment were all based on clinical examination by a neurological experts rather than any tests. Both patients survived but with significant residual weakness at the time these case reports came out, but that is not uncommon for Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients. The road to recovery may sometimes be long, but many patients can make a full recovery with time.

Though the reported cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far all have severe symptoms, this is not uncommon in a pandemic situation where the less sick patients may stay home and not present for medical care for fear of being exposed to the virus. This, plus the limited COVID-19 testing capability across the U.S., may skew our current detection of Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases toward the sicker patients who have to go to a hospital. In general, the majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients do recover, given enough time. We do not yet know whether this is true for COVID-19-related cases at this stage of the pandemic. We and colleagues around the world are working around the clock to find answers to these critical questions.

Sherry H-Y. Chou is an Associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh.

Aarti Sarwal is an Associate Professor, Neurology, Wake Forest University.

Neha S. Dangayach is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Disclosure statement: Sherry H-Y. Chou receives funding from The University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the National Institute of Health, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dean's Faculty Advancement Award. Sherry H-Y. Chou is a member of Board of Directors for the Neurocritical Care Society. Neha S. Dangayach receives funding from the Bee Foundation, the Friedman Brain Institute, the Neurocritical Care Society, InCHIP-UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Seed Grant. She is faculty for emcrit.org and for AiSinai. Aarti Sarwal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.


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Sanders said that while the "end result isn't what I or my supporters would've written alone, the task forces have created a good policy blueprint that will move this country in a much-needed progressive direction and substantially improve the lives of working families throughout our country."

"I look forward to working with Vice President Biden to help him win this campaign," the Vermont senator added, "and to move this country forward toward economic, racial, social, and environmental justice."

Biden, for his part, applauded the task forces "for helping build a bold, transformative platform for our party and for our country."

"I am deeply grateful to Bernie Sanders for working with us to unite our party and deliver real, lasting change for generations to come," said the former vice president.

On the life-or-death matter of reforming America's dysfunctional private health insurance system—a subject on which Sanders and Biden clashed repeatedly throughout the Democratic primary process—the Unity Task Force affirmed healthcare as "a right" but did not embrace Medicare for All, the signature policy plank of the Vermont senator's presidential bid.

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"That is exactly what we did, unapologetically," said Franco, a member of the Immigration Task Force. "For years, Mijente, along with the broader immigrant rights movement, has fought to reshape the narrative around immigration towards racial justice and to focus these very demands. We expect Biden and the Democratic Party to implement them in their entirety."

"There is no going back," Franco added. "Not an inch, not a step. We must only move forward from here."

Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.