Not So Green: “Where There’s Smoke” Uncovers Marijuana’s Surprising Impact on the Environment

Bringing together scientists, activists, cops, and even a U.S. Congressman for an interdisciplinary anthology, the new book explores the overlooked effects that cannabis has had on America.

Presented with the option for legal marijuana, ten out of ten stoners would jump at the opportunity, no questions asked. As recent polls show, even plenty of nonsmokers would. Why? Well, weed is great, for starters. But sky-high tax revenue! Jobs! Pardons for unfairly incarcerated drug offenders! There’s plenty to love, as 61% of America now realizes, including, for the first time, a majority of Republicans.

The pros of legalization and cons of criminalization are obvious to all of us who aren’t Jeff Sessions, but by focusing on the no-shit benefits and consequences, we’re obscuring a plethora of valid concerns that accompany every multibillion-dollar industry. Whether slipping under the gaze of government and law enforcement while illegal, or going unchecked due to conflicting state and federal guidelines while legal, weed’s impact on the environment, the economy, our bodies, and growers themselves is often ignored.

A new book, Where There’s Smoke: The Environmental Science, Public Policy, and Politics of Marijuanaseeks to uncover the unintended consequences of pot cultivation, legalization, and monetization. Bringing together scientists, activists, law enforcement officials, and even a U.S. Congressman for an interdisciplinary anthology, the book explores all angles and outcomes of the legal and illegal weed industries.

Congressman Jared Huffman opens the book by revealing that illegal marijuana farming in public lands such as national parks is “the biggest environmental issue” in his district of Northern California. In the first section, we’re informed how pot prohibition exacerbates this strain on protected lands, and how threatened species are being poisoned in the process. But just when you’re siding with Huffman’s move to increase penalties for these illegal growers, next comes a chapter about the unfair burden those laws place on the undocumented immigrants conscripted by cartels to maintain grow operations. Where There’s Smoke is constantly in conversation with itself as it discusses these ever-evolving issues that don’t have a clear-cut solution and require much more attention.

Char Miller, a professor of environmental analysis at Pomona College in California, was tasked with rounding up a murderer’s row of experts for the book, as well as editing their entries. Enthusiastic and tirelessly inquisitive, Miller asked questions that few others have about the shifting impact of pot on the U.S., and found the right minds to flesh out answers. Eager to pick his brain about the past and future consequences of mass-market marijuana on the country, MERRY JANE hopped on the phone with Professor Miller to talk about Where There’s Smoke and its exhaustive approach to untapped cannabis issues.


MERRY JANE: How did you first become involved with this project and what did you hope to accomplish with it?
Char Miller: 
Where the book began and where it ended are not the same places, which is a lovely outcome. My background is in environmental history, so I work fairly closely with a number of folks who are employees of the U.S. Forest Service. I began getting these reports from friends on the ground that the impact of illegal marijuana grows on the national forest and public lands was seeming not only to escalate, but was developing these really quite serious impacts on biodiversity. It’s one thing to have illegal logging or illegal mushroom picking; it’s a whole other thing to have a billion-dollar illegal industry located on your site.

I had a column for a long time in KCET, one of the local public radio stations, and I wrote several pieces that an editor saw, and she called me up and said, ‘We need to talk about this!’ So we started to think about a book that would look at the impact of marijuana on public, private, and tribal lands. But then it morphed because I started asking people I knew and people I didn’t know — scientists, law enforcement people, activists on the ground — to write chapters for it. Their insights sort of took the book in a new direction, which was to talk about the environmental impacts to be sure, but also to talk about the political changes that were erupting in Oregon and California, Colorado, the District of Columbia, and elsewhere. I went, Oh. This is a much better book.

Was it a challenge to find experts in all these fields who were willing to study the repercussions of illegal cannabis farming, or were lots of them already doing that?
They were actually already devoting part of the work to it, and that’s how I found them. Some of this is going through Google Scholar and just reading hundreds of articles and going, Oh, this is an interesting group that’s working on this; let me talk to them. I knew about the work that was taking place up in Northern California and in the Sierra, because those was my colleagues in the Forest Service. The author of the Colorado chapter had written a blog post about the election, just before the election in Colorado. So I called her up and said, ‘Loved your post, I want 5,000 words that explores the subsequent consequences.’

Involving all these people from different background led to some fun internal debate in the book. There’s this really interesting discussion by Amos Irwin about the complications of law enforcement and who was getting arrested [at illegal grow sites] and therefore paying for the cartel’s actions. It clearly isn’t the cartels; it’s usually undocumented immigrants. Then Rep. Jared Huffman, who represents the northern coast of California and introduced legislation that made illegal marijuana growing an environmental crime, wrote the introduction. And Amos goes, ‘Wait, but look who that’s punishing! The lowest of the low are getting clobbered by this, not the people who should be paying.’ I loved the fact that that tension was there [among contributors in the book], because it means that we don’t know all of the answers.

Map of illegal grow sites in California, 2004-2014

It seems like a very knowledgeable brain trust you’ve put together. I don’t know how you’d put this into action, but I think some kind of forum with all these people would be hugely beneficial and informative to a lot of people. Is there any idea on your side to further this conversation?
That’s actually a great concept. One of the places I hope this can happen, because a number of our people in the book actually teach there, is at Humboldt State University. It’s at the epicenter [of the marijuana growing industry], and it also has an institution on marijuana research. These are issues that have been addressed in a scattershot sort of way, and if you could pull people together to have a larger conversation, we might actually figure out before the next set of states legalize — and God knows, there’s going to be a lot of them — what some of the upsides and downsides are.

Just before the legalization vote in California, in November 2016, we held a very large and well-attended dialogue [at Pomona College] about the proposition, and brought in pharmacologists and political scientists. I’m pretty sure half the audience was stoned, based on their languid questions, but it was really good because you’ve gotta pull in this stuff and let people voice their concerns.

An issue that many of the authors in the book bring up is the problems that have been created by a disconnect between state and federal policy. How would you sum up those problems, which have probably been worsened by the current administration?
One of the issues that I did not anticipate was this long-standing, 18th-century tension between states’ rights and federal rights, and where those boundaries are located. Because marijuana is a Schedule I drug thanks to Richard Nixon and his administration, growers, whether legal or illegal, cannot deposit their profit in a federally insured bank. That poses all sorts of dilemmas, because there aren’t a lot of private banks in the country, although I know that California is considering creating its own state bank where those funds could go. I’m really interested in that problem, because it’s a workaround, right? If the feds say no and the state says yes, interesting! Then what happens? I think you’re going to see very powerful states like California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, and even the District of Columbia, pushing back hard inside the federal courts.

I think the Obama administration’s balancing act, which is to say, ‘Let the states experiment, we won’t interfere. Let’s see where it goes and evaluate it,’ was the right call. The Trump administration clearly believes in states’ rights on questions of race, but is unwilling to recognize them in this case because of, frankly, their badly outmoded, antique version of what marijuana is and the threats that it poses. If you listen to the Attorney General, it sounds as if you’re listening to somebody who deeply inhaled on the notion of “reefer madness.” Marijuana is not heroin! I’m sorry. And yet, that’s his perception. [Jeff Sessions] hasn’t yet moved on this issue — and that’s in part because he and the president are in deep trouble — so maybe we just ride this tide out. But this is a real tangle. Marijuana demonstrates to us how unclear we are about the dividing line between state and federal rights.

Another thing is that legal marijuana is producing so many tax receipts for Oregon, Washington, California, DC, and now Massachusetts, that the surrounding states are all going, ‘Oh my God! We need to get in on this green rush.’ That makes the federal government’s attack difficult to manage, because the states are gonna say, ‘Look, this is free enterprise. It isn’t just states’ rights, it’s about commerce and our right to regulate that commerce as long as it doesn’t cross state boundaries.’ I mean, California expects to get a billion dollars from tax receipts. Jesus! No one’s gonna oppose that!


California’s legalization measure was the first to include significant allocation of funds towards environmental restoration and enforcement of environmental growing standards. Do you think that’s something that should be adopted elsewhere, or is that endemic to California because of the size of their grow operation scene?
The logic is that, of all the states, California would be the one that says, ‘We’ve got to do this because the damage is clear and the vast majority of marijuana grown in the United States is grown in California.’ That connection struck me as quite logical. But now that it’s passed in California, I would think other states are weighing the possibility of tracking the same issue. In a state like Massachusetts, they have no idea what the environmental impact will be because they’ve not had any analysis of that possibility. So why not include it?

The other thing that Prop 64 did that I really like is to put a portion of the [tax revenue from legal sales] towards research on the psychological and physiological impact of marijuana. What is it doing to us? The irony is that it’s been very tough for American researchers to find funding to do that research because it’s a Schedule I drug. You take it off of that register, and all of a sudden we have some money to do the research. That strikes me as a perfectly legitimate stipulation on the part of the state, which I also hope other states will pick up on and pursue.

The final thing I would say about Prop 64, which may not actually come true, is its protection of small growers. At the moment, that seems to not be working out very well for the small growers, whose prices apparently tumbled from $1,500 a plant to $500 a plant. That makes it very hard for small growers to gain the kind of income that they were when it was illegal. Big money is moving in fast, which is not terribly surprising. But I think, whatever the early shakeout in the industry is, there will always be a role for the small grower in exactly the same way there is in the wine industry. This is going to be a niche market, and you can sell it like you would really high-priced wines coming off of 40-acre wineries.

Photo by John Nores, courtesy of the author

Some contributors sounded pretty unconvinced that even national legalization would convince cartels to pack up and leave California, so what’s their main revenue stream, or who are they selling to now that anyone over the age of 21 can buy marijuana down the street?
That’s a great question, and we don’t have enough data yet to know. However, there was a recent story in the LA Times that Mexico is now arguing it should legalize because so much marijuana is now flowing into Mexico from the United States’s legal production. So it’s like another state looking at California, like Nevada or Utah, and going, ‘Oh hell, we don’t want California to steal our business.’ A lot is at play at the moment and we just don’t know how enmeshed the cartels are, and how difficult it will be to pry them off the landscape. I think for a period of time, as long as there’s the capacity to grow and distribute and make money, they will continue to use their illegal grows and continue to manipulate people in very dire circumstances to do their bidding. The hope is that some of that can diminish through legalization, but honestly, we don’t have enough data yet to know that’s the case.

Since you put down the pen on this book, what new developments have you seen that have the most potential impact on the environment or anything else that’s discussed in the book?
One of the unknowns is the role of investment capital that is flowing into California, that sees marijuana as just one more product to be manufactured. We’re going to see that the greenhouses in the Salinas Valley that used to grow flowers are now growing bud. That strikes me as a logical transition, economically speaking, and capital is going to have its way. People see money, and they’re going to go flocking to that money, and it’s going to be really interesting to watch that unfold.

I think the other thing that we should watch for, as this green rush sweeps across the country, is how the individual states determine what manner marijuana will be made legal, what the restrictions are, how they will deal with the federal government that’s clearly in an unhappy state at the moment. Secondly, seeing the environmental problems that illegal and legal growing have produced, what kind of stipulations will they make about how marijuana is grown? How much water do they use? Do they dewater rivers and streams? Are we going to be dealing with a whole other set of environmental damages? I hope this book points that out and people say, ‘Oh, OK, that’s something we have to think about. We have to factor that into our legalization campaigns.’ And I hope they will.

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