The California Assembly plans to hold an unprecedented hearing on April 15 to examine a proposal to regulate a controversial, billion-dollar state crop: marijuana.
At first glance, Humboldt County Assemblymember Jim Wood's proposed regulation bill, the "Marijuana Watershed Protection Act" looks innocuous: It would add a single paragraph to the state's water code, and one to the health and safety code. But, in truth, AB 243 represents a groundbreaking new vision for the future of California cannabis agriculture — especially when it comes to water use.
Under the proposed law, pot farms would have to follow the same environmental regulations that govern other farmers. Regional water boards would issue permits to pot farms, and then legal farms would operate in largely self-policing cannabis agriculture districts that would function much like ones that involve almond growers or other specialty, regional agriculture.
The proposed regulations are earth-shattering, said Hezekiah Allen, president of the Emerald Grower's Association. "In and of itself, [AB 243] is relatively short and sweet, but what you're seeing is absolutely" huge.
Wood's bill would give several state agencies and regional water boards the green light to "address" pot cultivation's environmental impacts and "coordinate" on the issue. It also would make the state water board's marijuana pilot project — which has been working with pot farmers and has just released environmental best-practices guidelines — permanent and expand it throughout the state.
Wood said the bill is a homegrown response to pot's environmental impacts on the North Coast, which are analogous to strip mining and clear-cutting. Many well-intentioned but misinformed medical growers think they can steal water and trash streams, thereby threatening the extinction of Coho salmon and other species. "There's a perception out there that, 'This is my land, I can do whatever I want to my land,'" Wood said in an interview. And the reality is that with ownership comes responsibility, and you have a responsibility to not pollute and not to take water that isn't yours from your neighbor."
Industrial agriculture might hog the vast majority of the state's water, but pot's slim takings are magnified by their location in parched and stressed areas near streams.
A March study published by PLOS One found that in one severely affected study area, "three of the four watersheds evaluated [had] water demands for marijuana cultivation [that] exceed[ed] streamflow during low-flow periods."
Allen noted that the places least likely to manage water communally are also the ones most likely to entice pot farmers: They're rural and lawless.
"Certainly, in Trinity County, there isn't enough law enforcement to enforce anything up there, so it's pretty much, 'Come and do what you like and you're not going to get busted and if you are it's going to be a slap on the wrist because they're so inundated with cases,'" Wood said. AB 243 provides regional water boards the mandate they need to intervene, permit good farmers, and fine bad ones, Wood added.
On January 23, the state water board announced the results of a three-day inspection of marijuana grows in the Eel River watershed in Northern California. Members of the multi-agency task force didn't arrest anyone or rip out plants — instead, they poked around fourteen private properties in Sproul Creek, home to endangered Coho salmon. Sproul Creek went dry for the first time in 2014, "most likely a result of water diversions for marijuana cultivation" combined with the ongoing drought, a water board press release states. During the inspection, state water board officials found violations they intend to address, but regulators are seeking voluntary compliance in exchange for permits, rather than issuing fines — "much like [the board] regulates and monitors other activities on California's North Coast," the board's press release added.
If that doesn't work out, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife's Watershed Enforcement Team can serve warrants, cite growers, and confiscate crops. "We hope to not have to resort to those measures," stated Lieutenant DeWayne Little of Fish and Wildlife.
The water board expects to hand out a variety of permits in the coming weeks to farmers and more would come under AB 243. Cannabis agriculture districts could follow in the coming years. All of these steps provide a path for law-abiding growers to become normalized, Wood said. "The last thing we want to do is come in and say, 'We're here just like the old days to eradicate your grow,'" the Assemblymember added. "That's not what this is about. It's about educating people on best management practices and cleaning things up so we don't damage the environment."
Second-generation cultivator Casey O'Neill of Happy Day Farms lauded the state's progress during at a tasting event in San Francisco's Potrero Hill last weekend. O'Neill said officials have learned over decades that eradication doesn't work. He's ready to integrate his farm into mainstream society.
"That's what's been so great is to be able to talk to the regulators and say, 'No, I'm not compliant, but I want to be," he said. "We finally have made it through to that point where we can have an intelligent conversation."