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Nuvigreen Project: It’s Not All Green When It Comes to Marijuana

Legalizing the cultivation of pot would clear the way for regulations that ease safety and environmental concerns

[Noozhawk’s Note from Green Hawk Interactive Producer Sarah Ettman-Sterner: The Nuvigreen Project is a mentorship experience that helps bring to light a new source of environmental reporting, while supplying the community with up-to-date eco-news from fresh, youthful perspectives. Nuvigreen serves as terra firma to support and encourage high school and college students to pursue green careers, especially green journalism. Now, inspired young environmentalists have an outlet — a place to be seen, heard and published, and get feedback. It is a cooperative effort supported by Noozhawk and Santa Barbara educational institutions including Dos Pueblos High School and UCSB.]

In November, Californians will vote to decide whether marijuana should be legalized and taxed. If the measure passes, California would become the first state in the nation to allow people age 21 or older to possess, cultivate or transport marijuana for personal use.

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Proponents of the measure say taxation of marijuana would generate billions of dollars in annual revenue and reduce the burden on the taxpayers by about $1 billion per year, and that less money would be needed to be spent on prisons. Currently, much is spent on incarcerating about 30,000 Californians for marijuana-related charges, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.

Opponents of the bill argue that legalization of marijuana would encourage a higher percentage of people to try more dangerous drugs, such as methamphetamine or heroin, and the increased occurrences of marijuana use would cause permanent neurological damage to the users. Opponents say they’re especially concerned that marijuana would become easily accessible for minors, much like alcohol.

In addition to a number of societal and fiscal issues, there is one that voters need to take into consideration: the current environmental effects of the high demand for illegal marijuana.

Illegal marijuana growth causes serious problems for California and Santa Barbara County. In Santa Barbara and the rest of California, there is a high demand for marijuana. To satisfy this demand, Mexican drug cartels and other marijuana farmers use illegal plantations throughout Santa Barbara County and across California.

Many of these illegal grow sites are found in remote areas of national forests. For instance, the August 2009 Brea Fire that occurred in the San Rafael Wilderness in the backcountry of Santa Barbara County was reportedly the result of poor maintenance of an illegal marijuana plantation.

The environmental problems caused by illegal marijuana farms are not limited to the occasional fire. The safety of residents who use the public land is also a concern. Hikers have stumbled across grow sites protected by gunmen. In addition, most, if not all, marijuana farms use harmful and often illegal pesticides, insecticides and herbicides that all cause water pollution and a loss of biodiversity in the surrounding ecosystems. In a process called cultural eutrophication, the nitrates and phosphates in chemical fertilizers cause a large “dead zone” in a body of water.

According to an April article in Rolling Stone magazine, drug cartels cut down about 10 acres of forest for every acre of farm to clear land for the farms. This widespread deforestation leads to erosion and desertification and is a contributing factor to climate change.

To add to this environmental debacle, many marijuana growers use inefficient generators to power their indoor greenhouse plantations, a significant waste of electricity.

While these environmental issues directly impact the health of our ecosystem, a solution could come in the form of legalization of marijuana. The ballot initiative anticipates that the black market for marijuana would disappear along with the associated illegal grow sites as consumers would obtain marijuana through a legal method. A legal marijuana farm, permitted by the local government, would be subject to the same regulations restricting other farms, eliminating illegal pesticides and excess runoff of fertilizers.

It’s important to note that there is no guarantee that illegal marijuana farms would disappear, and the possible societal problems of legalization are difficult to predict. Undoubtedly, the legalization of marijuana is a multifaceted issue.

Voters must balance all of the arguments, as well as the environmental effects of continued growth of illegal marijuana.

Dos Pueblos High School students Joshua Brown, Christian Edstrom and Dan Balch are participants of the Nuvigreen Project, a student-produced reporting series in Noozhawk’s Green Hawk section.

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