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Growers of thirsty pot are under fire in drought-struck California
State officials say a pot plant sucks up an average of 6 gallons of water per day, worsening a shortage caused by one of the biggest droughts on record. They say the situation is particularly acute along California’s North Coast, where the growing pressure to irrigate pot threatens salmon and other fish.“This industry — and it is an industry — is completely unregulated,” said Scott Bauer, a fisheries biologist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. “What I just hope is that the watersheds don’t go up in smoke before we get things regulated and protect our fish and wildlife.”
California is also the most popular state for pot producers to grow crops in U.S. forests, accounting for 86 percent of the nearly 1 million plants federal officials seized in 2012.“Those are lands that you and I own,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif. “And when people are growing dope there and guarding their operations with guns and the likes, and sometimes with booby traps, we can’t use the land that we own. It happens all over.”
The situation is a complicated one in California, which passed the nation’s first medical marijuana law in 1996, allowing people to possess and grow pot, even though the federal government still bans the drug.Medical growers who tend their crops on private property object to getting lumped in with the illegal growers who are trespassing on federal lands.
They say they’re a scapegoat in the debate.“It’s really easy to point fingers at a very large cash crop that’s completely unregulated. It’s one of the main cash crops of the state,” said Kristin Nevedal of Garberville, Calif., the founding chairwoman of the Emerald Growers Association. She doesn’t grow marijuana herself, but she’s the spokeswoman for the group, which has about 400 members.
Public officials are taking aim at both the legal and illegal growers in many ways.In pot-rich Mendocino County, the sheriff’s department is cracking down on growers who steal water.
In Sacramento, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown proposed in his January budget to spend $3.3 million to enforce pot cultivation rules to protect water and endangered species.As part of a drought-fighting plan on Capitol Hill, Thompson and 13 other members of the U.S. House of Representatives from California want to give the Drug Enforcement Administration $3 million to get rid of the large pot operations in public forests.
In 2012, U.S. officials discovered illegal pot plots in 67 national forests in 20 states, including 252 sites in California. Washington and Colorado, the only states that have legalized marijuana for recreational use, ranked second and third, respectively, followed by Idaho, Georgia and Kentucky.At raided sites, authorities have found widespread damage, including miles of irrigation lines, propane tanks, and rat poison and other toxic chemicals that end up in streams.
California Democratic Rep. John Garamendi, a co-sponsor of the drought bill, said the forest growers were “operating without any environmental awareness.”“They’re using the water illegally. They’re using the land illegally. They’re growing an illegal product,” Garamendi said. “And they’re probably protecting that product with illegal weapons.”
Nevedal and other pot backers said the ultimate solution was for Congress to fully legalize the drug, which she said would eliminate the need for growers to hide in the wilderness and truck in their water.
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Page Updated: Monday March 31, 2014 11:28 PM Pacific
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