As California continues its nearly 20-year-long debate over the legalization of marijuana, one issue of great concern to Audubon California and the larger conservation community is the environmental impact of marijuana cultivation. With a well-financed effort in progress to place an initiative on the November 2016 ballot legalizing recreational marijuana use in California, Audubon California joined many of these groups to communicate to the backers of the ballot measure the need to address the impacts resulting from cultivation and provide strong environmental protections and funding going forward.
Prior to the ballot measure’s announcement this week, these groups had an opportunity to review the initiative’s language. Subsequently, Audubon California joined eleven other groups in signing a letter acknowledging that the measure “meets our expectations by including strong environmental protection provisions as well as a substantial guarantee of 20% overall revenue as long‐term funding for programs to restore and protect the environment.”
Audubon California’s signing of this letter should not be interpreted as an endorsement of the measure itself. The issue of legalization involves much broader issues that are beyond Audubon's mission and expertise.
Research showing the dramatic environmental impact from marijuana cultivation compelled Audubon California to weigh in on this issue. Cultivation in sensitive watersheds has resulted in tremendous ecological damage, impacts that only increased when California in 1996 approved the use of medical marijuana, and cultivation in this state increased dramatically.
Marijuana cultivation uses a startling amount of water, more than twice the amount per plant as wine grapes. Because so many marijuana farms are illegal, most of this water is taken directly from rivers and streams, causing a number of problems for fish and habitat. During this time of drought, these diversions from the watershed can cause immense ecological damage.
These farms also cause direct damage to habitat itself, carving up the landscape for roads and trenches, in addition to scraping the forests for the planting. The use of chemicals and rodenticides also harm birds and other wildlife.
Nowhere are these issues regarding marijuana cultivation more deeply felt than in northern California, where waterways such as the Eel River are being harmed just as they are recovering from the effects of decades of logging, and where a number of sensitive bird species need healthy riparian habitat to survive. Audubon California’s goal in communicating with the backers of the Adult Use of Marijuana Act was to ensure that any new legislative action not result in even more negative impacts to wildlife and habitats and, where possible, undo some of the considerable damage done in the past.