Tag: environment

Medley of Agencies Tasked to Enforce California Cannabis Law

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Licensed businesses around California can begin legally growing and selling marijuana for recreational use Monday, and a hodgepodge of enforcement agencies will be trying to make sure they adhere to a slew of new cannabis laws.

Since no single agency has overarching responsibility, supporters and opponents of legalization worry how well the laws will be followed.

Three state agencies will issue a combined 19 types of permits to growers, retailers, manufacturers and distributors. Each agency has enforcement officers tasked with cracking down on unlicensed operators.

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In addition, other state agencies such as Fish and Wildlife and the Narcotic Enforcement Bureau said they will rely on marijuana task forces already in place to continue eradicating illegal growers and sellers.

The newly created state Bureau of Cannabis Control, which licenses retail outlets, said it has hired several officers to help crack down on unlicensed shops and plans to hire more in the coming months. But much of the work of arresting illegal operators will still fall to sheriffs and police departments.

“We are a pretty small operation,” bureau spokesman Alex Traverso said.

He said about eight enforcement officers will be in place Jan. 1, though bureau chief Lori Ajax said enforcement won’t be a priority in the first months of the new year as the agency focuses on getting retailers licensed.

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The bureau has issued fewer than 200 temporary business licenses so far. That’s a fraction of what ultimately will be distributed once Los Angeles, San Francisco and other major local governments start issuing their own licenses, which are required to get a state permit.

A small number of retail shops from Berkeley to San Diego say the will open New Year’s Day.

While an increasing number of states have legalized marijuana in one form or another, all uses of the drug remain illegal under federal law. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has said federal authorities still are contemplating how they will enforce cannabis laws in California.

Assemblyman Tom Lackey has introduced legislation that would make the California Highway Patrol the point agency for enforcing state marijuana laws, especially those seeking to stem the flow of cannabis out of state.

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“If we want to avoid intervention from the federal government, we need to do everything we can to crack down on illegal activity and prevent cannabis from being exported,” the Palmdale Republican said. “Without a central point for coordinating action statewide, accomplishing this will be a huge challenge.”

The bill will be considered when legislative sessions resume in January.

Ajax worked for 20 years in the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Department before Gov. Jerry Brown appointed her to run the cannabis bureau. She said regulating marijuana is more complicated than policing alcohol because counties and cities have considerable authority over cannabis.

State laws include that consumers be at least 21, that businesses not be within 600 feet (183 meters) of schools and must close by 10 p.m. They’re also required to have 24-hour video surveillance.

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Counties and cities have similar requirements with a few twists. Oakland city officials, citing disparate marijuana arrest records, have given applicants convicted of cannabis-related felonies preference in obtaining permits in certain neighborhoods.

Several counties and cities used existing medical marijuana laws to adopt recreational use rules by striking the word “medical” from the ordinances, keeping in place existing local tax rates.

Marijuana businesses also will be required to pay state taxes. Some of the tax revenue is earmarked for enforcement, but sheriffs in several counties say they’re already pouring resources into marijuana enforcement.

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Siskiyou County leaders recently declared a state of emergency and called on the governor to assist the sheriff with eradicating an influx of illegal farms. The county banned commercial cultivation, but that hasn’t stopped a migration of marijuana farmers snapping up cheap land in remote Northern California.

“We are overwhelmed,” Sheriff Jon Lopey said.

Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman has similar concerns in a county that has legalized marijuana in the heart of the fabled cannabis growing region called the Emerald Triangle.

“Please do not continue to say that marijuana is a totally harmless herb that God put on this Earth, and we don’t know why we’re fighting over it,” he told county supervisors, who he said were overlooking the criminal aspects of growing marijuana.

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In Los Angeles County, sheriff’s officials are preparing to see a possible increase in marijuana dispensary robberies and drivers who are high behind the wheel.

Sheriff Jim McDonnell said he believes legalization will be “eye-opening for a lot of people.”

“The public’s perception is that weed is innocuous, that this is something they did 40 years ago and it is no big deal,” he said. “Well, today’s marijuana is not yesterday’s marijuana. The active ingredient, THC, is so much higher today than back 40 years ago.”

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In some cases, the farmers are planting on government lands hidden deep in forests patrolled by state wildlife wardens. So-called guerrilla farms illegally set up on public property or remote private property without the owners’ knowledge have troubled rural law enforcement officials and federal authorities for years.

California’s Fish and Wildlife Department created a marijuana enforcement team three years ago to stem illegal gardens in the state’s forests. The agency also created Watershed Enforcement Teams to crack down on marijuana farmers who illegally divert streams, used banned pesticides or otherwise harm the environment.

Fish and Game Capt. Paul Foy said the department has no plans to change its enforcement strategy after Jan. 1 and will continue to concentrate on environmental crimes and illegal farms on public lands.

An estimated 1,000 illegal farms controlled by organized crime operate on public property in California, he said.

“We’re going to keep on keeping on with enforcement,” Foy said. “We stay busy.”

California Legalization Brings Host of Environmental Rules

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — At a state briefing on environmental rules that await growers entering California’s soon-to-be-legal marijuana trade, organic farmers Ulysses Anthony, Tracy Sullivan and Adam Mernit listened intently, eager to make their humble cannabis plot a model of sustainable agriculture in a notoriously destructive industry dominated by the black market.

In line with a 2017 study that found marijuana grows are more damaging, plot for plot, than commercial logging in Northern California forests, Anthony said he has seen too many destructive grows. Trash-strewn clearings. Growers heaping fertilizer at the foot of a centuries-old sequoia tree, needlessly endangering it. Wild streams diverted for irrigation.

“It really bothers me when I see some of the other operations, the treatment of the land,” he said.

Hopes are that legalization will help rein in environmental damage from black-market grows, much of it in Northern California old-growth forests.

He came from Northern California’s remote Lake County with his two business partners for the state-run seminar on just some of the water regulations that growers must follow when California — the United States’ biggest economy, and biggest producer by far in the underground U.S. cannabis market — legalizes recreational marijuana for licensed and permitted growers and sellers in the New Year.

Complying with water laws alone would mean daily record-keeping, permit applications, inspections and more, state officials said. The three growers took in the volume of new environmental rules but were confident they could comply and be ready to go legal with their 1-acre (4,000-square-meter) farm, said Sullivan, sitting between her two male business partners.

“Oh, yeah, it’ll be possible,” she said. “It’ll just be a longer road” than they expected.

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Hopes are that legalization will help rein in environmental damage from black-market grows, much of it in Northern California old-growth forests. But early signs are that only a fraction of growers are applying for permits immediately as recreational marijuana becomes legal here.

At the briefing earlier this month, state regulators and consultants hoping to do business with cannabis farmers notably outnumbered the growers. Rachel Begonia of West Sacramento, one of those consultants, wondered aloud: Where were all the other cannabis growers scrambling to comply with environmental requirements?

As legalization and all of its environmental oversight for farmers who go legal approach in just a few weeks, “either they’ve got it in the bag, or they’re going to try to fly under the radar,” Begonia figured.

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It’s impossible to know exactly how many growers statewide are planning to go legal, two years after Californians voted to legalize recreational marijuana starting in 2018.

California’s agriculture department just started accepting applications from growers this week, agency spokesman Steve Lyle said. By midweek, it had received fewer than 200 such applications and approved four, Lyle said.

In this undated photo provided by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the remains of a marijuana farm are visible on private land in the Eel River watershed near Willits, Calif. However many of California’s cannabis growers come off the illicit market when recreational marijuana becomes legal here next month, legalization will bring environmental rules and regulators to an previously unregulated industry notorious for bulldozing forest, draining streams, and strewing banned poisons. (California Department of Fish and Wildlife via AP)

In Northern California’s remote and forested Humboldt County, where an estimated 15,000 cannabis farmers grow illicitly now on private lands or in so-called trespass grows on tribal lands and publicly held forests, only 2,300 have applied for the required local growing permits, officials say. Humboldt County anchors a swath of California forests known as the Emerald Triangle, estimated to produce almost two-thirds of U.S. cannabis.

Mourad Gabriel, a wildlife biologist in Humboldt County, has spent years documenting and sounding alarms over the damage that black-market marijuana grows wreak in California’s sloping old-growth forests and virgin streams.

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A container of pesticide exploded in his face at one grow site, Gabriel said. All of the so-called trespass grows Gabriel has inspected have featured illegal diversions of water and some kind of toxic substances, he said.

That’s often in the form of old soda or water bottles refilled with widely banned poisons, such as carbofuran, and used to keep bugs or rodents from gnawing on drip irrigation lines or plants.

He and colleagues conducted some of the first surveys of lethal poisoning of significant numbers of California’s few hundred remaining fishers, a threatened carnivore. Overall, chemicals at grow sites threaten wildlife ranging from owls to bears to elk, Gabriel said.

He’s skeptical California is bringing strong enough enforcement to bear on environmental infractions.

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Even if half its growers decide to go legal, California will still have numerous farms that flout the rules, Gabriel said. “If even a fraction have pesticide and water use … that’s a concern. A definite concern.”

California’s Department of Pesticide Regulation is adding about 10 toxicologists and other scientists to its staff of 400 to deal with the industry, said Jesse Cuevas, assistant director of programs. “It’s not too often we get a multibillion-dollar industry regulated overnight,” Cuevas said.

Since marijuana remains illegal under federal law and California’s list of allowed bug, mold and rat killers is tied to federal law, no conventional poisons are specifically approved for California cannabis growers. Pot farmers will be allowed only a limited number of conventional pesticides and those associated with organic farming such as cinnamon oil, citronella or traps.

Cannabis sold legally in the state must be tested first for pesticides and other dangers.

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California’s wildlife department has added about 100 law enforcement officers, scientists and others to deal with the marijuana industry, said Nathaniel Arnold, a deputy chief of law enforcement for the agency.

State and local water boards are adding just under 100 staffers to deal with the industry’s water problems, which include contaminating and destroying waterways, said Clint Snyder, assistant executive officer of one regional water board.

Snyder expects many in the black market to wait and see how things go for the first legal growers, like the Lake County business partners.

Ideally, as in the years after Prohibition, trust and market forces will bring growers out of their hideouts in vulnerable hills and forests, and onto the valley floors with the rest of California’s farmers.

“The current status quo is unacceptable, and it’s very damaging to the environment,” Cuevas said. “Any step to regulate the industry is a step in the right direction.”

The Future of California Cannabis Depends on Rain

Water in California is a notoriously hot commodity. As a state that’s spent more time in a drought than out of it during the past five years, legalizing a new, water-intensive agricultural crop—especially when that crop has the historical baggage that cannabis does—is a complicated process.

Done carelessly, cannabis grows can have profoundly negative impacts on nature, polluting waterways with pesticides and clearing trees and shrubs that help support a healthy ecosystem. This is especially true of illegal cultivation, which has bled into national forests and other protected land in recent years.

On the flipside, when done thoughtfully, cannabis uses a lot less water than California’s other agricultural staples, such as almonds, said Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the California Growers Association—and it offers a considerably higher profit margin.

“We’ve got a [water] crisis on our hands in California, and it’s much bigger than cannabis,” Allen said.

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In an effort to balance environmental concerns with marijuana’s projected $7 billion market, California is ushering in a bevy of rules and regulations related to water use. In June, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a cannabis omnibus bill that, among other things, sets standards for organic marijuana and establishes environmental protections.

“It’s not going to be, ‘No you can’t grow.’ It’s going to be, ‘No you can’t grow unless you store enough water.’”

Hezekiah Allen, California Growers Association

The bill, SB 94, includes a provision that allows regulators to restrict cannabis cultivation if they determine it’s causing environmental harm. Specifically, it bars the Department of Fish and Wildlife “from issuing new cannabis licenses or increasing the total number of plant identifiers within a watershed or area, if the board or the Department of Food and Agriculture finds, based on substantial evidence, that cannabis cultivation is causing significant adverse impacts on the environment in a watershed or other geographic area.”

In other words, the goal is to limit cultivation to only what California’s ecosystems can support.

The clause is similar to one tucked into Proposition 64, which voters passed last year to legalize adult-use marijuana. It requires each individual cannabis plant to display a unique ID number—and it says that if a particular watershed can’t support additional cultivation, no new plant identifiers will be issued.

That means growers won’t be able to plant where there’s not enough water to support their crops—something that could spell disaster for cultivators who rely solely on water from watersheds, said Allen, a former grower who now focuses full-time on public policy.

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California currently plays host to roughly 40,000 to 80,000 cannabis growers, according to estimates from both industry groups and the US Drug Enforcement Agency. To stay afloat, cultivators will need to focus on sustainability, Allen said, such as storing rainwater during the wet months for use during the dry summer.

“It’s not going to be, ‘No you can’t grow,’” he said. “It’s going to be, ‘No you can’t grow unless you store enough water.’”

The overarching goal of the legal framework around water use is to require growers to be “good stewards” of water if they want to continue operations unimpeded, said Allen, noting that cannabis can actually be grown on a very small footprint using “barely any water” compared to California’s other primary cash crops. Most cannabis-producing regions in the state, he said, could rely completely on captured rainwater to irrigate.

But while rainwater is free, the equipment to capture and store it can cost a pretty penny. Allen said cultivators need to formulate realistic business plans that fold in the cost of a rain-catchment system. For a in Northern California, that could cost approximately $250,000 to $300,000.

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While the wonders of rainfall may work fine for Northern California growers, the approach runs into problems in the arid climes of Southern California. By Allen’s calculations, based on the average amount of water needed per square foot of grow space, a cultivator with a 100-square-foot cultivation area would need to capture 15 inches to 18 inches of rain per year to effectively irrigate. While this past winter was California’s rainiest season in 122 years—with the state, on average, receiving a whopping 27 inches between October 2016 and February 2017—that’s far from the norm. The five seasons prior saw record low rainfall throughout the state, with many Southern California cities getting less than 10 inches per year.

“These are unique requirements for cannabis cultivation, recognizing the impacts that we’re seeing out there in the watershed.”

Erin Ragazzi, State Water Resources Control Board, Water Rights Division

The rules governing water use in cannabis are complex and intertwined. They include statutes born of cannabis laws as well as regulations promulgated by various state agencies. Earlier this month, the State Water Resources Control Board released its 117-page draft cannabis cultivation policy, which aims to ensure that water diversion and waste disposal don’t harm wetlands, water quality, or animal habitats. The rules apply not only to commercial medical and commercial adult-use cultivators, they also govern home growers.

“These are unique requirements for cannabis cultivation, recognizing the impacts that we’re seeing out there in the watershed and where these grows are taking place,” said Erin Ragazzi, assistant deputy director of at the State Water Resources Control Board’s water rights division.

Under the agency’s regulations, cannabis cultivators will be allowed to divert water from streams during the wet, winter months as long as a given waterway’s flow is above a certain level. If water drops below that pre-designated mark, growers will be barred from tapping in.

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During the dry season, Ragazzi said, cultivators will be banned from diverting water no matter what the conditions.

“Water supply will always be a concern in the state of California. It’s exacerbated in years when we have lower supplies,” she said.

(ksteffens/iStock)

The new draft policy acknowledges California’s “size and geographic diversity,” explaining that within the state’s 163,696 square miles, there are 800 miles of coastline, multiple mountain ranges, and hundreds of scattered valleys. These factors all lead to “highly variable climate, precipitation and drainage patterns,” which is why water board has divided the state into 14 different regions, each with varying requirements around how much water needs to be present in a stream before that water can be used to grow cannabis.

“It doesn’t matter where the water comes out of the tap. It matters where the water comes out of the ecosystem.”

Hezekiah Allen, California Growers Association

Much of the conversation around water regulation is currently focused on outdoor grows, particularly in California’s agricultural epicenters such as the Central Valley and Emerald Triangle. Indoor growing is going to be “particularly tricky,” said Allen of the California Growers Association.

Most indoor cultivators will have to pump water from their respective municipal agencies—but will only be allowed to do so if the water the agency is receiving is eligible for use by a cannabis grow. Los Angeles, for example, owns municipal reservoirs but also buys imported water to supplement supply. If it turns out the municipal agency is in fact getting its water from a federal dam or watershed that’s overextended, the grow won’t be allowed to use it, Allen said.

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“It doesn’t matter where the water comes out of the tap,” he explained. “It matters where the water comes out of the ecosystem.”

Which is something that many cannabis cultivators along the North Coast haven’t seem too concerned with, according to Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club of California. Growing medical marijuana has been legal for 20 years, she said, yet many of the cultivators know nothing about water rights, regulations, or protecting the environment from pesticides, she said.

“They’re allowed to grow this stuff, and they’re doing it in a way that’s creating substantial harm for plants, for the waterways, for animals,” said Phillips. “Marijuana growers are part of California’s agricultural industry, and, I think until relatively recently, they’ve seen themselves as being different.”

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The North Coast has been impacted significantly by both legal and illegal grows, Phillips said. Cannabis, can cause erosion, contaminate wildlife habitat, and leave behind debris or toxins. This may be in part because cannabis growers have tended to be located in more remote areas, sometimes out of reach of patrolling water enforcers, she said. Non-cannabis farmers are more typically located within agricultural districts, subject to oversight and familiar with water-use practices (including water cuts) that historically haven’t been imposed on cannabis growers, she said.

The Sierra Club tried to change this through its involvement in prior legislation that aimed to hold cannabis cultivators to the laws of the Fish and Wildlife Department and State Water Resources Board, which all other state agricultural operations are required to follow.

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“What if every farmer in the San Joaquin Valley did not obey the law?” she asked. “Can you imagine what a mess it would be?”

In short, while there’s been regulation, there so far hasn’t been much education or enforcement, said Phillips. That stands to change under new state laws and cannabis regulations, which allocate the funds needed to hire staff, implement educational programs, and build out an enforcement team.

California will almost assuredly face droughts in the future. Some farmers are already looking north. But if the state’s emerging water-use rules work out, the newest legal crop—considered one of the largest—may be able to keep on growing.

In Photos: California Wildfire Endangers Cannabis Crops

A drought-fueled inferno that began in California this week intensified on Tuesday, destroying homes, scorching dry brush and timber, and putting hundreds of cannabis plants in jeopardy.

The blaze, which started Monday about 30 miles south of San Jose, had reduced at least two houses to rubble and threatened more than 300 buildings by Tuesday afternoon. No injuries had been reported at the time, but property damage was widespread.

Anthony Lopez harvests <strong><a href=marijuana plants as the Loma fire burns around his home near Morgan Hill, Calif., on Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2016. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)" width="840" height="526" />Anthony Lopez harvests marijuana plants as the Loma fire burns around his home near Morgan Hill, Calif., on Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2016. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
Anthony Lopez harvests <strong><a href=marijuana plants as the Loma fire burns around his home near Morgan Hill, Calif., on Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2016. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)" width="840" height="526" />Anthony Lopez harvests marijuana plants as the Loma fire burns around his home near Morgan Hill, Calif., on Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2016. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
Anthony Lopez harvests marijuana plants as the Loma fire burns around his home near Morgan Hill, Calif., on Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2016. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)Anthony Lopez harvests marijuana plants as the Loma fire burns around his home near Morgan Hill, Calif., on Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2016. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

Firefighters have struggled to control the wildfire in the face of tinder-dry humidity and temperatures in the upper 90s. Difficult terrain and other obstacles have also slowed responders’ efforts to extinguish the flames, the Associated Press reports:

One remote area where the fire burned is 30 minutes up a winding dirt road. Another is dotted with large-scale marijuana growing operations. A main route along the ridgetop is not accessible, even to firefighters, because of downed utility lines.

Resident Anthony Lopez, who grows cannabis plants, returned to his home Tuesday despite still being under evacuation orders. The AP reports he was “overjoyed” to find his dozens of cannabis plants still standing—and his 1972 Buick Skylark uncharred—but other growers haven’t been so lucky.

Last month another Northern California fire caused more than $10 million in damages—including cannabis plants that belonged to Lower Lake resident James McCauley. The plants were effectively destroyed after being coated by bright pink fire retardant, and newspapers around the world showed him weeping over the lost crop.

Marijuana plants are covered in fire retardant near the remains of a burned out house in Lower Lake, Calif., Monday, Aug. 15, 2016. (AP Photo/Josh Edelson)Marijuana plants are covered in fire retardant near the remains of a burned out house in Lower Lake, Calif., Monday, Aug. 15, 2016. (AP Photo/Josh Edelson)
James McCauley weeps while looking over the burned out remains of his prized marijuana plant and what's left of his residence in the town of Lower Lake, Calif. on August 15, 2016. McCauley traversed a creek by boat for a half mile to see the property. (AP Photo/Josh Edelson)James McCauley weeps while looking over the burned out remains of his prized marijuana plant and what’s left of his residence in the town of Lower Lake, Calif. on August 15, 2016. McCauley traversed a creek by boat for a half mile to see the property. (AP Photo/Josh Edelson)
A firefighter walks through marijuana plants as mop-up continued during the Clayton fire after structures were destroyed in Lower Lake, Calif., Monday, Aug. 15, 2016. (Hector Amezcua/The Sacramento Bee via AP)A firefighter walks through marijuana plants as mop-up continued during the Clayton fire after structures were destroyed in Lower Lake, Calif., Monday, Aug. 15, 2016. (Hector Amezcua/The Sacramento Bee via AP)
Marijuana plants are covered in fire retardant near the remains of a burned out house in Lower Lake, Calif., Monday, Aug. 15, 2016. (AP Photo/Josh Edelson)Marijuana plants are covered in fire retardant near the remains of a burned out house in Lower Lake, Calif., Monday, Aug. 15, 2016. (AP Photo/Josh Edelson)

“This fire is a good reminder that even though we are approaching October, this time of year is historically when we experience the largest and most damaging wildfires,” Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant told the AP.

Farmers of cannabis and other agricultural products in California have long worried over water supplies in the state, and concerns have deepened as the weather grows hotter and dryer. A provision of Prop. 64, a measure on November’s ballot that would legalize cannabis for adult use in California, goes so far as to prohibit additional cultivation in regional watersheds that can’t support it. But as this summer’s wildfires show, a warming climate can mean more than water woes for California growers.

Lead Photo: AP/Noah Berger