Marijuana wafts across the California landscape as legalization of recreational use approaches.
By Mimi Zeiger
Ed Rosenthal grows weed. He has for decades. The Oakland, California-based horticulturist, author, and activist is the go-to expert on home cultivation. He’s written more than a dozen books on the subject and the policies that surround medical marijuana and legalization. Their titles fall somewhere between what you’d see in your local nursery and your corner head shop: The Big Book of Buds (volumes one through four), Marijuana Garden Saver, and Marijuana Pest & Disease Control.
“Growing is addictive,” Rosenthal says with a laugh, and then quickly clarifies that the drug is not. “Given the right conditions and a sunny backyard, marijuana can be grown almost anywhere in California.” He speaks poetically about marijuana’s diverse morphology: It has male and female plants. Some are tall, some wide, and there are different strains like indica or sativa that range in color—like heirloom tomatoes—from absinthe yellow–green to maroon and deep purple. To cultivate cannabis for its THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and psychoactive properties, only the female plants are grown. The male plants look a bit like wild mustard; the female plants are the ones that produce buds for consumption. “With humans and cannabis, the female is considered more beautiful,” he explains. “I have a bunch of marijuana plants growing, and they all look different, like six different varieties of a dahlia. Each plant is an individual.” He compares homegrown marijuana to homegrown tomatoes. “The person who grows the best marijuana is the person who is growing at home. Everybody loves their own produce.”
It’s a vision of cannabis production that is far different from what the public imagination associates with marijuana: the resource-heavy hydroponic “grow house,” which makes high demands on labor, energy, and water. Or the news reports of thousands of plants seized and destroyed on illegal grow sites on U.S. Forest Service land.
In 1996, Californians passed Proposition 215, permitting the use of medical marijuana. This measure allowed state residents with a medical ID card stating that they have a condition treatable by consumption of cannabis to grow up to six plants at home. In 2018, thanks to the passage of Proposition 64 last November, California will join Alaska, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington, as well as the District of Columbia, in legalizing recreational use. This means that cultivation will grow across many scales as it hits the mainstream—from the home user to industrial nurseries. And, at the moment, it is up to cities and counties to regulate who grows weed and where. In 2018, the California Department of Food and Agriculture will begin to oversee marijuana cultivation. The proposition will still allow localities to tax and regulate, but state regulations, licensure, and taxes will be imposed on all retail sales and cultivation.
As legalization approaches, industrialized cannabis cultivators are poised to take advantage of the expansion to recreational use with large grow facilities in areas not typically known as marijuana country. For decades, Northern California’s Emerald Triangle—Humboldt, Trinity, and Mendocino Counties—were (and still are) the best-known sites for legal and illegal pot production. But the impact of the green rush is felt across California, even in unlikely landscapes such as Desert Hot Springs, a suburban community just outside Palm Springs that voted in conditional-use permitting for cultivation on industrial or undeveloped land in 2014. In September 2016, the Santa Barbara grower Canndescent opened the first facility in the Coachella Valley. But its 9,600-square-foot state-of-the-art warehouse will soon be trumped by a 111,500-square-foot operation from Cultivation Technologies Inc. in Irvine. Located on a six-acre plot of land that was once a wrecking yard, the megacampus broke ground in June.
But what is the impact on the environment when usage changes from relatively light demands on water and power services to high-tech cultivation? Cultivation Technologies Inc. boasts an energy-efficient campus that relies on features such as LED grow lights. Most cities and counties across the state regulate energy use as a condition of permitting. As for water, a single marijuana plant consumes on average six gallons per day: Multiply that by the tens of thousands of plants per facility. (The cultivator Dan Grace of Dark Heart Nursery explains that growers will generally plant from one half to one plant per square foot of canopy, depending on the utilization of a given warehouse.)
Officials of Mission Springs Water District, which serves Desert Hot Springs and the Coachella Valley, worry that a booming industry will put a strain on their water infrastructure. The water is there—sourced from the Mission Creek Subbasin aquifer—but there may not be the means to deliver it. Under the Medical Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act and overseen by the Bureau of Medical Cannabis Regulation, growers will be required in 2018 to account for their sources and consumption. State law SB 837, drafted during California’s recent drought, is unique compared to other states’ regulations for its emphasis on water conservation and environmental impact. The law addresses the effects of unregulated outdoor grow sites (mostly in Northern California), among which are the diversions of streams or creeks that have damaged fish and wildlife habitats.
Mourad Gabriel, the executive director and cofounder of the Integral Ecology Research Center (IERC), has seen firsthand the devastating effects of trespass growing on state, federal, and tribal lands. He regularly works with law enforcement to find and eradicate a small fraction of some 350 illegal sites annually discovered on public lands. He explains that the U.S. Forest Service, Region 5, in Northern California is particularly attractive to the drug trafficking organizations. The area is the size of Connecticut and is monitored by one or two law enforcement officers. Nationwide, most illicit growing activity occurs in California. In 2016, according to a U.S. Forest Service agent, Stephen Frick, 1.5 million marijuana plants were seized on national forest land in the state. Seizures elsewhere in the country totaled only a few more hundred thousand. “Free land. Free water. No regulation. No taxes,” he says. “With a $10,000 to $30,000 investment, you get a couple million dollars in profit. It’s a great investment,” Gabriel says.
Gabriel and his team track water and soil contamination caused by illegal marijuana crops and damage wrought on protected landscapes and wildlife ecosystems. Trespass growers hike into sites (some just a mile off a road, others five miles into the wilderness), packing in plants and equipment. They clear native vegetation and use irrigation hoses to divert water. Whereas medical marijuana growers have strict regulations over the use of pesticides, illegal operations have no such restrictions. Gabriel regularly finds trash and open containers of herbicides, rodenticides, and pesticides scattered across grow plots deep in the woods. The pesticides and rodenticides leach into the ground and pollute waterways. Animals eat the chemicals and then the poison travels through the food chain. “Deer and elk also eat marijuana plants—they are browsing sites with chemicals that are banned for use in the United States and Canada because of human health risks,” he explains. “We find certain chemicals that the EPA says only last two to four weeks. We see them lasting three to four years.”
The IERC has limited money and muscle to eradicate and remediate sites. The remoteness of these grow plots and the threat of armed growers mean that trash must be cleared out on foot or by helicopter in a single day. As a result, on the 30 to 60 sites the team cleans annually, only a tiny percentage of the natural environment is able to be restored. Gabriel wants to bring more attention to the damage to the environment. He sees these illegal grows as a violation of the public’s will. “We are not talking private lands. This isn’t the war on drugs,” he stresses. “Our public lands are being utilized for private gain. You can’t grow corn, tomatoes, strawberries, or marijuana on public land.”
Although some proponents argue otherwise, Gabriel is skeptical that Proposition 64 will produce a decline in trespass growing. Harvests are generally not produced for medical dispensaries. Rather they find their way across state lines for black market sales and consumption. Meanwhile, farther down the coast, Monterey County government officials are interested in bringing rogue cultivators into the fold. They offered incentives for growers to come forward and become legal by August 2017. Those who obtained permits would get amnesty, and those who didn’t would face law enforcement.
California’s Central Coast is a longtime agricultural region. Row after row of lettuces and strawberries blankets the Pacific bluffs. Although the region’s temperate climate would be great for growing weed outdoors, both the cities in the area and the county ban outdoor cultivation. Plasha Fielding Will, a political consultant and founder of the Monterey County Cannabis Industry Association, says that officials wanted to ensure that Salinas Valley would remain the lettuce capital of the world. They worried that the more lucrative marijuana crop would take over. Other fears included odors, security, and criminality—all issues that fall under what Gavin Kogan, an attorney, entrepreneur, and founder of Grupo Flor, calls “cannabigotry.” Area regulations encourage marijuana cultivators to restore existing Dutch greenhouses that previously had been used for cut flower production. They’d been shuttered as a result of the United States–Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement of 2012, which has bolstered flower exports from Colombia to help the country free itself from the cocaine trade.
One of the most interesting by-products of the green rush along the Central Coast is cultural. For generations, Japanese and Filipino families operated these old Dutch greenhouses, but as the cut flower business was undercut by imports, their businesses closed. As the cannabis industry beckons, some are benefiting by selling their properties, while others are getting involved in production. Kogan looks to these farmers for their skills in scaling a business, knowledge of agricultural processes, and ability to reduce labor costs. “I’m excited about this cross-cultural evolution…bringing expertise with cut flowers and combining it with cannabis cultivation,” he says.
So far, the Salinas Valley’s rolling landscape seems unchanged by a booming industry. Yet inside those refurbished greenhouses, high-tech growing practices are at work. “Greenhouse cannabis cultivation is really new,” says Kogan, whose self-described “ecology” of companies under the Grupo Flor umbrella includes property management, cultivation, edibles production, and dispensaries. “It’s not common because it is hard to hide it. With passage of the Medical Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act and adult use, people are more comfortable stepping out into full view in the economy.” That visibility, though, comes with rules and costs that can be frustrating to growers used to the freedoms of the underground. Legal cultivation comes with building permits, fire permits, business licenses, and taxes. And while Grupo Flor boasts 2.6 million square feet of properties and operations in permitted zones, security concerns with the Salinas Valley community requires that eight-foot-high fencing wrap its holdings. Cultivators favor chain link with green side striping through the links—an identifying tip for those driving through the area.
Kogan bridles a bit at the need for this kind of constructed opacity, which is paired with security guards and closed-circuit television cameras. It harks back to the highly opaque dealings of illegal practices. He’d rather see transparency both in physical space and permitting processes. This past June, Grupo Flor was the first marijuana company to participate in the Forbes AgTech Summit in Salinas alongside local producers such as Taylor Farms (salad greens and lettuce) and Driscoll’s (strawberries). He hopes that people will eventually see marijuana simply as an agricultural crop, albeit a lucrative one.
Years before Dan Grace founded Dark Heart Nursery in 2007 with his partner, Sara Ubelhart, he was an activist and spent time in Kentucky working in community gardens. His earliest cannabis grows were the efforts of an informed hobbyist. Today, Grace runs his nursery out of a 20,000-square-foot warehouse, a former food processing plant. Dark Heart specializes in developing premium clones for growers in Northern California. They entice with fantastically evocative names: Romulan Grapefruit, Sour Diesel, Gorilla Glue #4. Their industrial building, however, blends into its East Oakland environs—the city’s “green zone,” a designated area for permitted cannabis cultivation. But warehouses are ill suited for agriculture. Humidity is a problem; air-conditioning is a problem. And cooling systems just add to already heavy energy loads. “Indoors, you have to control the whole world,” Grace says.
Oakland is considered a leader in permitting marijuana. In 2004, it became the first city to give permits to dispensaries, a move that seemed unthinkable at the time. “It was the Bush years. John Ashcroft was attorney general,” says Oakland Councilmember at Large Rebecca Kaplan. Today, the Trump administration is echoing the sentiment of those days. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has threatened to crack down on states that allow medical and recreational use. Although 60 percent of Americans live in an area that permits some legal use, Sessions plans to target marijuana providers.
“I was involved in this ‘wild experiment’ from the very beginning, when everyone said we were nuts. I asserted that what is causing crime is not the marijuana, it’s the prohibition. Just like the Mafia and alcohol prohibition,” Kaplan says. She hopes that permitting cultivation will put an end to jerry-rigged electrical wiring and other unsafe warehouse conditions. Still, rules go beyond simply governing the grow facilities’ odor mitigation or environmental impact. Cultivators are also asked to submit a community beautification plan that details “specific steps your business will take to reduce illegal dumping, littering, graffiti, and blight and promote beautification of the adjacent community.”
For Grace, permitting has allowed cultivators to stop hiding. “We introduced ourselves to our neighbors and invited them in for tours,” he recalls. “We found a sense of community. Here in Oakland, we have plenty of shared problems like crime and vandalism in the neighborhood. It took a lot of courage to do that back then. You were always worried you were going to run into a stick-in-the-mud neighbor who would call up the drug enforcement agency.”
But Oakland’s openness has created a rush on the limited number of existing spaces and parcels where cultivators can set up shop. Real estate prices have more than tripled for green zone warehouses. “There’s a mismatch on supply and demand in certain areas,” Grace says. Concerns remain that better funded entrepreneurs will shut out local business, especially in historically African American neighborhoods. This spring, the city council approved an equity permit program for cannabis businesses. It aims to prioritize issuing permits to people most affected by the war on drugs as well as residents who were arrested and convicted of cannabis crimes in Oakland over the past 20 years. “Look at the history of the war on marijuana. It’s a war on black people,” Kaplan says. “Racism is fundamentally intertwined in the system. [With legalization], it would be more unjust if we excluded them from the chance to profit.”
As 2018 approaches, the cannabis landscape in California promises a host of social, economic, and environmental complexities. Legalization is unlikely to solve cultivation’s impact on habitat in Northern California. Special Agent Frick has seen only steep and steady increases in illegal activity as the state loosens its laws. And it’s hard to predict whether it will bring equity to hard-hit Oakland communities. It does, however, seem to provide new opportunities for industry in areas that need revitalization. Home grower Ed Rosenthal offers some philosophical advice to an uncertain future. Of growing marijuana, he says, “You know that life is fragile. The plants die in a season.”