Home / General / Marijuana in the Forests: A Localized Silent Spring in the Making?

Marijuana in the Forests: A Localized Silent Spring in the Making?


For this week’s Forestry Friday post I want to follow up on last week’s discussion of drug cartels destroying the forests of Mexico by bringing this story into the forests of California. A team of scientists at UC-Davis conducted a study about recent deaths in the population of the rare Pacific fisher, a member of the weasel family. What they found was disturbing. Essentially, the Mexican drug cartels are using a huge amount of rat poison on their hidden plantations in the Sierra Nevada. The rodents eat the poison, but they don’t die immediately. As predators kill the still living rodents, they ingest the poison into their own system. It builds up and they die a horrible, painful death that turns their internal organs to mush. 79% of the fisher carcasses studied had rat poison in their system.

Of course, fishers aren’t the only animals to eat forest rodents. Like other poisons, it moves up the food chain. The study worries about the impact of poison on other predatory mammals. The effect of this poison upon birds has not been studied, at least to my knowledge, but we can probably make an educated guess about that. This rat poison, which the cartels use in huge amounts (I’ve seen the original report with DEA pictures from raided pot plantations), also washes into streams and affects fish and other aquatic creatures.

Effectively, this poison enters the food chain in ways not dissimilar from DDT and other famous poisons. Of course, this is not widespread enough to truly cause a Silent Spring-type scenario, but on a local level, this rat poison could have an enormous effect on the forest ecosystem.

There are two logical policy moves that would help eliminate this problem. In the short term, the DEA needs to put its resources toward eliminating these cartel operations and away from the easier to find operations on the west coast. Second, we need to decriminalize marijuana. California will eventually decriminalize, over the objections of the pot growers themselves who profit off criminalization, but it has to be nationwide. Otherwise, the cartels still have reason to go into our national forests and tear up the environment in order to provide Americans’ seemingly insatiable demand for the drug.

More detailed info about the state of the Pacific fisher is here.

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  • rea

    Are these really Mexican drug cartels who are growing marijuana in the mountains of California? US citizens are quite capable of growing the stuff themselves . . .

    • Yes–the Mexican cartels have significantly invested into growing sites on national forest land.

      There are certainly these problems with American citizens as well, but in these locations, it’s mostly the Mexican cartels.

    • The research is being done in California, the pot is elsewhere.


    • scott g

      Though ‘cartel’ is a misnomer in this context (Drug Trafficking Organization is a more accurate but less wieldy phrase), yes, the Mexico-based organizations have established a very substantial presence on both public and large private ownerships across northern California. A few years back, the 800,000 acre Mendocino NF was the scene of a coordinated law enforcement sweep that netted about 170 arrests, few if any of whom were US citizens. The local record in Humboldt County was 134,000 plants, pulled off private timberland.

      For background, I have worked for NW Cal environmental groups since 2003, primarily focused on forestry issues and related public lands policy issues. The environmental impacts of marijuana cultivation have, over that period, surged to the forefront of the most consequential issues facing these lands – which are, incidentally, the locus of the greatest biodiversity in the West.

      • DrDick

        They also operate meth labs in the California and Arizona deserts.

  • Murc

    Second, we need to decriminalize marijuana.

    Honestly? From a policy perspective this is going to be woefully inadequate, I think.

    Merely decriminalizing marijuana use or possession will do nothing to eliminate the demand for it, or the illegality of possessing with intent to sell or the acts of buying and selling, which means the cartels will continue to operate, the war on drugs will continue, and all that will really change is people who are caught with a dime bag get a ticket instead of a court date. That’s not nothing, but it’s also not enough.

    We need full-on legalization.

    • Sherm

      What do you see as the distinction between decriminalization and full-on legalization?

      • Murc

        Well, something that’s decriminalized isn’t necessarily legal. It’s just not a criminal offense.

        It’s illegal to park just wherever you want, but its not a criminal act to do so, for example. Most places I know that have “decriminalized” marijuana (or are talking about it) are implementing or debating proposals that mean if you’re caught with some, its like being caught speeding. They retain rather harsh penalties for dealing or growing.

        • Sherm

          Yeah, and you can get a ticket for drinking a beer in public and alcohol sales are heavily regulated. But I agree that any decriminalization where it is still a violation to grow or possess is inadequate. It should be treated no differently than alcohol.

        • Gus

          Indeed. Under an ounce and a half is considered decriminalized in Minnesota, but it’s still illegal to possess.

      • Malaclypse

        Under decriminalization, you can still get the rough equivalent of a traffic ticket.

        But I’m not seeing how Murc’s consequences follow from that difference.

        • Peter Hovde

          Because as long as production and sale are illegal, the hidden plantations (and the violence) will continue.

          • Malaclypse

            I missed the part where growing remained criminal. That makes sense, thanks.

            • Still, if personal use doesn’t get you thrown in the hoosegow and your house turned upside-down people seem to feel safer with a plant in an unused closet, thus putting a dent in the gang market.

              • blowback

                I believe in Holland it is legal to grow up to either six or twelve plants – marijuana cultivation is meeting the welfare needs of Holland’s old people. Perhaps with all the “problems” facing Social Security, the Republicans can be persuaded that this is an acceptable free market alternative.

                • Sherm

                  Yes, and it will decrease medicare expenditures for glaucoma treatment.

            • Murc

              Even if growing is legal, Mal, if sale isn’t, we’re still screwed. Who is going to plant ten acres of marijuana openly if the cops know you can’t legally sell it? They’ll just set up surveillance and wait. You will still be incentivized to grow secretly and illegally, and criminal enterprises will still control the entire distribution network.

              Sure, the guy running a small-scale grow op for himself and his buddies will now be okay. But he’s not that big a deal in the grand scheme.

        • DrDick

          Given that decriminalization normally only covers possession for personal use, the same draconian penalties (and thus costs) exist for suppliers. Full legalization, with regulation like tobacco or alcohol, removes most of the profits from the drug trade and the incentives for this kind of activity and violence.

          • Holden Pattern

            You don’t see people setting up clandestine grows of barley or hops, and moonshine is a thing of the past as well.

            • Moonshine isn’t actually a thing of the past exactly, but it’s obviously super small-scale and I don’t quite know why people still make it except just because they like to do it. But I’ve been in a couple of situations where real live moonshine has appeared. I never imbibed though, valuing my sight and all.

              • DrDick

                It really is something of a niche market these days, but whrn I ws in college in the early 70s, there were still moonshiners operating in the hill country of eastern Oklahoma. Don’t know about today, as most of those families went into marijuana and later meth production given the higher profitability.

  • DrDick

    One more argument for legalization, though I so not actually expect to see it in my lifetime.

  • scott g

    To clarify & extend Erik’s point, we’re seeing these issues not only in California’s Sierra, but in the Klamath-Siskiyou (far NW California) as well. See, eg, the bust two days ago of 26,000 plants on the Hoopa Reservation – almost certainly a ‘cartel’ grow by the inditia – which is pretty much dead center on the most viable remaining Pacific fisher population in the west. With rodenticides and pesticides in evidence.

    For the details on that one, see http://www.times-standard.com/localnews/ci_21271417/pot-bust-nets-26k-plants-hoopa-large-sophisticated

  • Richard

    So the argument is legalize marijuana because otherwise Mexican cartels use pesticides that kill rats which are feasted upon by weasels and then the weasels die. Boy, that is really going to turn the tide in favor of marijuana legalization.

    • Medrawt

      Indeed, I suspect that Erik was vehementy anti-marijuana leglization until he learned of the plight of the fishers.

      Or …

      • Sherm

        …Richard read Loomis’ post through a haze of smoke.

    • bph

      Well, other than the whole rat poison in the water supply thing.

  • One other thing would help: full funding of the National Parks and National Forests. One reason it’s feasible to grow on those lands is that the public land agencies are woefully understaffed and can’t patrol consistently or effectively enough to prevent this.

    • This is a good point.

      • Stag Party Palin

        Disagree. Yes for full funding of parks and personnel, but No for making them go up against armed drug growers. The *only* thing that will turn this around is legalization. Everything else is just different ways to count the bodies.

    • bph

      I doubt it.

      There are a huge range of lands in the West, owned by a number of different groups. If the NPS gets good at enforcement, the growers will just move to other locations. Locally we have had farms show up in state parks, open space preserve land (privately owned by a non-profit) and on private home owners (including the former captain of the local hockey club.)

      Legalization is the only long run solution.

      • Yes there is a huge range of lands but not all of that is particularly good for cultivating much of anything, not to mention high-grade marijuana.

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