Mother Jones Magazine: This Is Your Wilderness on Drugs [UPDATED]

UPDATE: The author of this weed story, Josh Harkinson, will be holding a Twitter chat tomorrow from 9:30 – 10:30 a.m. If you’d like to ask questions, get more info or give Harkinson a piece of your mind, follow him on Twitter or follow #MoJoChats at the appointed hour.


Original post:

When a piece is titled the Landscape-Scarring, Energy-Sucking, Wildlife-Killing Reality of Pot Farming, the reader has little expectation of reading a nuanced piece of journalism. Surprisingly, Josh Harkinson’s story in this month’s Mother Jones magazine manages to convey a more even-handed tone than the shocking headline would indicate.

Local Attorney Ed Denson, who says he has defended around 150 people accused of marijuana related crimes and thus has some idea of cannabis cultivation practices, expresses the most troubling aspect of the Mother Jones story in a comment he posted on their website. He wrote to the author,

Your article conflates the growing practices of a large trespass grow with those of mom and pop growers whose gardens are on their own property. As you might imagine local people are much more environmentally aware than those who set up large scale gardens on property they don’t live on or own.  

A large part of the conflation happens in the headline. However, the actual article manages to press together both the high end, generally environment-consciously grown marijuana produced by some growers (see an attempt to describe types of growers below the ###) with the low-end, environmentally damaging product produced by others. The article says,

To meet demand, researchers say, the acreage dedicated to marijuana grows in the Emerald Triangle has doubled in the past five years. Like the Gold Rush of the mid-1800s, this “green rush,” as it is known locally, has brought great wealth at a great cost to the environment. Whether grown in bunkers lit with pollution-spewing diesel generators, or doused with restricted pesticides and sown on muddy, deforested slopes that choke off salmon streams during the rainy season, this “pollution pot” isn’t exactly high quality, or even a quality high.   

The entire article manages to convey that the vast majority of marijuana grown in the Emerald Triangle is of poor quality and produced in an environmentally destructive manner.

Nonetheless, Harkinson does an excellent job describing the actual damage from some grows and growers. He was on the same large trespass grow in eastern Humboldt as the LoCO last November. (See links to the two-part series here and here.) Below is an excellent video featuring Dr. Mourad Gabriel and mostly shot on the site by the Mother Jones team.


The section in the article that deals with Gabriel’s efforts at discerning what is happening to the fishers and how this relates to the cannabis industry clearly depicts the damage that some grows pose to the environment. (As a point of interest, the Lost Coast Outpost’s comment section gets a dishonorable mention as the source of some of the threats that Gabriel has encountered.)

Overall, the piece is useful to point out issues with marijuana production but there is a serious danger that people reading it will conflate all types of growers, whether ecologically friendly or not, into one steaming pile of Landscape-Scarring, Energy-Sucking, Wildlife-Killing creeps.


As a writer about marijuana issues, I’ve been in multiple types of pot gardens. I’m going to attempt to categorize them and give a broader understanding of the differences that exist between the general types. I’m going to attempt to be more nuanced than the Mother Jones’ piece. This is a subjective exercise. But it is still useful to open up a conversation about the subject. Growers, in my experience, generally fall into five subsets. (As with all attempts to describe, there are people who fall between categories. There are people mostly in the Mom and Pop category who would never think of using chemicals but who haven’t stopped drawing water from streams during the critical summer months because the cost and work involved in putting up a water tank seem prohibitive to them, for instance.)

Mom and Pop-the vast number of growers in our area are small and interested in being sustainable farmers as far as they understand that designation. There is, of course, no way to quantify the exact amount that exist and their numbers may appear to be larger because they are often active in the community volunteering and participating in many organizations. (Also, often they have other jobs. Marijuana may supplement the income of ranchers, grocery store clerks, teachers and others.) These growers lean toward organic growing practices. Most talk as if they were totally organic though the reality on the ground may vary as does their understanding of what being organic means. Most attempt to protect the environment around them or at least not harm it. Often their land is their biggest investment and they value it for sentimental as well as monetary reasons. They generally grow under 250 plants at a time. (Yes, that seems a lot of marijuana but a tomato farmer that grows only 250 plants would barely be considered a tomato farmer.) Many grow under a 100 plants as that is the federal limit for prosecution. Evidence of their buying power and their environmental bent exists in the successful campaign to remove rodenticides from the shelves of grow supply stores in Southern Humboldt, an area of the county that has been very roughly estimated to have up to 80% of the population involved in cannabis production. Ads pointed at this group are another indication of its power and numbers. They compare roughly to small farmers across America that sell in farmer’s markets. They rarely net more than $100,000 per year and most earn substantially less.

Desperation–These are generally the same size as Mom and Pop growers but the plants they grow don’t look well-cared for. The growers might use pesticides/chemicals, waste water from nearby streams, plants are often put in late, and other poor growing practices exist that hurt their financial bottom line as well as the environment. These people aren’t gardeners but rather people who are struggling to use marijuana to solve their financial issues. They might or might not own the land they grow on. They can be damaging to the eco system. The Hacker Creek spill is an example of the kinds of eco practices you’ll find. 

Businessmen –these growers often have multiple plots of land with hundreds of plants on each plot. Generally, they grow in greenhouses and lean towards being organic but sometimes they’ll use whatever is on the garden supply store shelves if they think it is financially to their benefit. They have a number of people working for them. They generally are concerned with profits but they also view at least some stewardship of the land as important also–after all they own the place and they want to be able to continue using the land profitably into the future. They are sometimes involved at least financially in supporting their community. They compare roughly to large agriculture.

Behemoth–Large growers on their own private land interested in making money however they can. Often they plant thousands of marijuana plants. They don’t care what wildlife are injured, what streams are depleted and what chemicals are spewed onto the land as long as they continue to make money. They only seemed to care that they don’t get caught. They hire a substantial number of workers and do stimulate the economy around here. These can be compared to some of our large corporations.

Trespass-large growers that trespass on public or private lands interested in making money however they can. Often, in my experience, they plant thousands of plants but then don’t have the wherewithal to take care of them properly. They don’t care what wildlife are injured, what streams are depleted and what chemicals are spewed onto the land as long as they continue to make money. These are comparable to criminal enterprises in other areas.

These are rough outlines and not scientifically determined but are rather painted here with a very large brush to help give a feel for the varieties of ways marijuana is produced locally.

(Note: I feel concerned putting out numbers as defining the size of one group–Remember there are a number of variations that affect the overall ecological footprint of marijuana growing. 250 small plants at an indoor grow are not the same as 250 planted in the sun. The impact on the environment varies greatly and varies in type of impact. Just one small example of that is that 250 indoor plants use far less water than do 250 outdoor plants in most conditions. AND 250 outdoor plants use much less fuel to produce buds than do 250 indoor plants.)


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