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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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A volcano erupts on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island on Dec. 9, 2019. Michael Schade / Twitter

A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.

"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

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At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.