California Forum

Why California needs federal marijuana eradication programs

Illegal marijuana growers on public lands destroy natural resources while undercutting legal growers with an unregulated, untaxed product.
Illegal marijuana growers on public lands destroy natural resources while undercutting legal growers with an unregulated, untaxed product. Sacramento Bee file

California has a long-standing legal medical marijuana industry with a legal recreational industry on the way. It’s therefore understandable that members of our state’s congressional delegation have been asking tough questions about why the federal Drug Enforcement Administration devotes millions of dollars a year to uprooting cannabis plants in California.

Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Torrance, has been particularly critical, telling The Washington Post that the DEA’s marijuana-eradication program makes “zero sense.” But, as strange as it may sound in light of the passage of Proposition 64 legalizing recreational marijuana, the DEA’s eradication program could significantly benefit California if it’s properly focused.

Touring the Emerald Triangle as a member of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Marijuana Policy, I witnessed firsthand the environmental destruction caused by illegal cannabis grows, many of which are on federally owned land. A massive illegal grow operation recently discovered in Lassen National Forest illustrates the seriousness of the problem.

Federal government agencies worked for months to remove almost 7 tons of trash, a range of toxic chemicals and 18 miles of drip lines that were stealing water in the drought-stricken region. Although the many legal marijuana growers I met in the Emerald Triangle generally took a dim view of the DEA, they were appreciably more hostile to the illegal growers who destroy natural resources while undercutting legal growers with an unregulated, untaxed product.

Almost half of the land in our state is owned by the federal government. Local police forces and the state’s emerging legal marijuana industry regulators lack the resources to monitor such a large area for illegal grows. The federal government in contrast has the resources and the legal mandate to police its own property, and the DEA marijuana-eradication program is its most logical mechanism for doing so.

The best solution for California and perhaps for other legalizing states as well is for our congressional representatives to support full funding of the DEA’s marijuana-eradication program, but with an important constraint: Funding would be allowed only for removing grows on federal land.

This would protect natural resources, make national parks and forests safer for those who wish to enjoy them as campers or hikers, and give all of California’s would-be marijuana growers a powerful incentive to participate in the state’s emerging system of licensed, well-regulated production.

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University and a former senior policy adviser at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. He can be reached at knh@stanford.edu.

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