The photo looks like something out of a horror film. A long, thin animal lays dissected on a white table. Metal tools pull the animal's skin back to reveal its jellied, maroon-colored insides — all soupy, slick, and lumpy. It's the remains of a Pacific Fisher, an eight-pound member of the weasel family that's now hovering near extinction, thanks in part to illegal pot farming in the vast forests of California.
Fishers eat forest mice, and forest mice nibble the green stalks of still-maturing cannabis plants. So illicit growers who toil deep inside California's forests spread powerful rodenticides — rat poison — on the ground near their marijuana crops. The mice eat the poisonous anti-coagulants, get sick, and then the fishers eat the mice. Soon after, the furry forest weasels are melting from the inside out.
Mourad Gabriel, a UC Davis doctoral student who has been researching the health of fishers across the state, showed me the photo, which he took as part of several years of research on the animal. Gabriel's studies show that about 86 percent of fishers in California have been exposed to rodenticides and that the percentage has been increasing in recent years. The habitat range for fishers also overlaps nearly perfectly with known illegal pot grows on public and private lands in the state. Called "trespass grows,'' they've been found in medium- to-old-growth forests in remote areas that range in elevation from sea level up to 6,000 feet.
In one study of 58 dead fishers, 79 percent had been exposed to rodenticides and four died as a direct result of the anti-coagulants. Gabriel also documented the first incidence of a mother fisher transferring the poison to her offspring through her milk. In another study, a male fisher was found dead in a trespass grow on July 31 with a pesticide-laden hot dog still in his throat. The fisher didn't choke on the hot dog. He was poisoned by an insecticide "associated with a marijuana cultivation site," Gabriel wrote in one of his studies.
Hard-line drug warriors in Sacramento and Washington, DC, along with environmental groups and the media, have seized upon Gabriel's work this year. And largely because of him, the Pacific Fisher has become the 2013 mascot for environmental degradation wrought by pot farming. "My jaw dropped when I saw that study," said Brad Henderson, who plans habitat conservation for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, referring to Gabriel's research. "It means there's no place safe for wildlife in California. You can go way into the backcountry and you got anti-coagulant in predators."
New federal laws in the works would stiffen fines for trespass grows. State officials are also assembling a forty-agency task force to tackle the problem. And the media — including Mother Jones, The New York Times, and the Associated Press — has piled on with coverage of the environmental dangers posed by trespass farms including dead fishers; fish-kills in streams sucked dry by pot growing; illegal logging, grading, and chemical use; and the lack of erosion controls.
"I think it has reached a fever pitch," said Gabriel of the news coverage. "I think it's an escalating fever. We haven't hit the top of it. We're just scratching the surface. The more we scratch, the higher that fever is going to climb."
In fact, an increasing number of law enforcement officials in the state and throughout the nation are now pointing to the environmental destruction caused by trespass grows as justification for continuing the War on Drugs and increasing government spending to stamp out marijuana production. Amplified by a willing national media, the environmental harms caused by pot have become "the new reefer madness," said well-known marijuana historian Dominic Corva.
But some Northern California officials who are on the frontlines of combating trespass grows say they're only a symptom of a much larger problem: the Drug War itself.
Butte County Supervisor Bill Connelly, a conservative who describes himself as "definitely not an environmentalist," shares this belief. He contends that ramping up the War on Pot because of trespass grows will ultimately fail to either eradicate the farms or protect Mother Nature. As a result, he's calling for the legalization of marijuana nationwide, joining a cadre of unlikely advocates on the right, including current Humboldt County Sheriff Mike Downey. They argue that if pot becomes legal, then marijuana production will come out of the shadows and into the light where pot will be grown legitimately on traditional farms, like other crops. At that point, there'll be no need for growers to head deep into the woods to produce weed and poison animals.
Although cannabis remains illegal under federal law, Americans consume an estimated 2,500 to 5,000 metric tons of marijuana each year, according to estimates from the Rand Drug Policy Research Center. About 30 million Americans smoke or eat cannabis products annually, and about 6 million people use pot daily. Weed is the second-most popular recreational substance in the nation, behind alcohol.
Two-thirds of the pot consumed in the United States comes from Mexico, while about one-fifth of it is grown domestically, according to Rand estimates. California produces more weed than any other state, and according to a 2010 Central Valley High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program report, may account for as much as 79 percent of all domestically grown marijuana. And the epicenter of domestic cannabis cultivation are Humboldt, Mendocino, Lake, and Trinity counties in Northern California.