Illegal pot grows spoil North Coast

Marijuana plants grow on a newly bulldozed hillside overlooking Lake Oroville in Butte County.
Marijuana plants grow on a newly bulldozed hillside overlooking Lake Oroville in Butte County.

In 1996, California voters decided that marijuana should be available for medical use. Since then, most of the state’s medical cannabis has been grown in parts of Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties, known as the “Emerald Triangle.”

Nearly 30 years ago, my wife and I moved to Northern California to start a business and raise a family. We chose to escape the hectic pace of life in Southern California to a place of breathtaking beauty by day and night skies full of stars we hadn’t seen in years. While residents and visitors may come from different places, we all share a profound appreciation for the natural beauty of the North Coast – the majestic redwoods, beautiful rivers and abundant wildlife.

Sadly, there are threats to our natural treasures in the form of illegal marijuana growers trespassing on private and public lands. I have seen grow sites where scores of trees have been clear-cut and where illegal pesticides and rodenticides have been used to protect crops. And in the historic drought, watersheds are running dry from illegal water diversions.

Water is being held from traditional agriculture to ensure there is water in the streams for endangered fish, but instead it is being pumped onto illegal marijuana farms and poisoned by chemicals. Last year, Sproul Creek, in Humboldt County, ran dry for the first time and officials believe it was due in large part to illegal diversions of water for marijuana.

It is time to act, and act decisively. Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown approved $1.8 million for a pilot program on the North Coast to address the environmental problems created by medical marijuana farms. My bill, Assembly Bill 243, would make this a statewide program, but that is not enough.

We can’t solve this without addressing the source of potential damage caused by marijuana cultivation. AB 243 also creates a structure to tag permitted medical cannabis plants with a unique identifier for each plant. This will help state and local officials monitor the number of plants a watershed supports. If a watershed cannot support additional cultivation, no new plant identifiers would be issued.

The program also improves quality control and enforcement. In Colorado, a similar cannabis identifier program helps law enforcement distinguish permitted plants from illegal ones. Identifiers will make it easier to trace contamination and health hazards to their source.

AB 243, which passed the Assembly this month and is now before the Senate, protects consumers, while giving law enforcement another tool to combat illegal grows.

For nearly 20 years, we have allowed the medical marijuana industry to go largely unregulated. We have kicked the can down the road for too long. We must act now to protect the environment and protect our water for future generations.

Jim Wood, D-Healdsburg, represents the 2nd Assembly District.