Pollution from illegal marijuana farms deep in California’s national forests is far worse than previously thought, and has turned thousands of acres into waste dumps so toxic that simply touching plants has landed law enforcement officers in the hospital.”

That’s the opening to an Aug. 16, 2017, Reuters story on the vast damage done by thousands of pot growers in California, whose reckless cultivation methods include widespread use of dangerous chemicals that seep and spill into the soil and water. It’s just one in a growing string of media accounts and studies on the ecological impact of cannabis farming in the Golden State.

Two of the most recent examples:

“An alarming number of spotted owls are being found dead with illegal rodent poison in their systems—poison that researchers say is being set out by clandestine marijuana growers protecting their lucrative crop from rats and other pests,” The
Sacramento Bee
 reports, based on a study from the January 2018 edition of Avian Conservation and Ecology.

“Planting cannabis for commercial production in remote locations is creating forest fragmentation, stream modification, soil erosion and landslides,” says the web site ScienceDaily.com, citing a study in the November 2017 issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

Conditions are worsening fast in the state that law-
enforcement officials say accounts for more than 90 percent of U.S. marijuana production. Mourad Gabriel, a University of California-Davis wildlife biologist who works with the Forest Service, estimated to Reuters that California forests hold 41 times more solid fertilizers and 80 times more liquid pesticides than Forest Service investigators found in 2013.

These things aren’t news to the people who live in the areas hardest hit. Siskiyou County declared a state of emergency last September, followed by Yuba County in December. And in January 2018, Calaveras County banned commercial cannabis production altogether, a few months after Dennis Mills—a county supervisor and former water-district director—issued a 61-page report on cannabis growers’ impact, “Cultivating Disaster,” and called for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to step in with its own study.

Carla Lowe of Citizens Against Legalizing Marijuana says that growing awareness of the dangers has potential to give citizens pause across the state.

“Some people may not care about the kids dropping out of school or the increased crime,” she says. “But when they hear about threats to the water of northern California—which is the drinking water for the whole state—that may get their attention.”

Originally published in the March 2018 issue of Citizen magazine.