Could Cannabis Help the American West Solve Its Thorniest Environmental Issues?

A Growing Industry, and an Entire Region, Wrestle with Questions Around Water, Land Use, and Conservation

Finding ways to collaborate on cannabis regulations could offer the American West a blueprint for resolving larger questions of rural livelihoods and sustainability. Researcher Phoebe Parker-Shames explains. Courtesy of AP Newsroom.

The study of cannabis is a personal one for me. Outdoor cannabis production in the rural Western U.S. has its roots in back-to-the-land movements of the 1960s. That’s when counterculture groups began growing cannabis surreptitiously as a source of income, a political statement, and a spiritual practice. I grew up in rural Southern Oregon, the child of hippies from that era. The communities where we lived were, at least in part, founded on and funded by cannabis.

In 2015, the year Oregon legalized recreational cannabis, I was home applying to graduate school. I was surprised to see that legalization was already starting to transform the landscapes I had grown up in—both ecologically and socially. I had friends who were growers, and had seized legalization as an opportunity to legitimize their businesses. But I had other friends who were raising alarms about the emerging industry’s potential environmental harms—from the high carbon footprint of indoor warehouses, to the water use for outdoor farms, to the poisons used on illegal public land grows. I decided to focus my dissertation research on understanding these developing conflicts, using tools from wildlife biology, landscape ecology, social sciences, and other disciplines to try to answer a wide array of questions about the cannabis industry. I wanted to understand: Where is cannabis production located, and why? What are cannabis farming’s impacts on a landscape? And finally, how does wildlife respond to active cannabis farms?

Because cannabis is still federally illegal, there is very little research on the crop or its dynamics. I realized I would have to start from scratch. To my surprise, I found that though these issues feel unique to cannabis, in reality, they run parallel to rural land use issues that predate its legalization. This means that addressing the concerns regarding rural cannabis production will provide a roadmap for resolving many entrenched issues relevant across the Western U.S.

One thing this means, of course, is thinking about water. Estimates of cannabis farms’ water use have varied greatly, and researchers are working to generate better calculations. But the amount of water that cannabis farms use isn’t the only issue at stake: geography, storage, and timing are also important. My research showed that cannabis hotspots are often located near rivers. This proximity could be a concern if farmers are drawing water from the stream or a shallow well, which could deplete or reduce the river’s water. Other studies from the Cannabis Research Center at UC Berkeley, one of my primary collaborators, have indicated that many farmers lack enough water storage capacity to be able to draw up and store water during the winter, to avoid straining rivers during the summer.

The social and ecological dynamics of cannabis production are a microcosm of questions of rural livelihoods and sustainability in the Western U.S.

These issues mirror general worries that existing Western water policies are not prepared to handle the worsening water shortages associated with climate change. Current regulations don’t encourage farmers—whatever their crops—or other landowners to practice conservation or balance their water needs with those of rivers and fish. But perhaps concerns over cannabis, coupled with recent historic droughts, will be enough to finally update water policies for all.

Another Western issue that cannabis policy can help address is land use planning. In my research, I found that cannabis farming on private lands in Southern Oregon had a small overall footprint but one that had expanded rapidly. In the years following legalization, cannabis plots were generally clustered on larger parcels in areas that were not typically zoned for agriculture. This brought up questions about planning and zoning: Where should cannabis be located? Are current zoning codes effective for cannabis production? How would restrictions affect existing farms and equitable access to land?

Like water rights concerns, these planning challenges are not unique to cannabis production. Across the West, outdated land use codes and opaque planning processes frequently generate conflict between land users, reflective of disagreements about how to allocate land for conservation, recreation, development, and production. The increase of large-scale, area-based conservation initiatives, like California’s “30 x 30 plan,” are likely to intensify these debates in the coming years. If counties develop transparent and equitable planning processes for cannabis that integrate feedback from growers, neighbors, researchers, and regulators, they might be able to decrease such conflicts, and facilitate better community dialogue across all types of land use.

Finally, the rural location of many cannabis hotspots means that cannabis farms are often near wildlife habitats and in proximity to certain sensitive species such as Coho salmon and Pacific fishers. My research also suggested that some species can coexist with cannabis farming, while it deters others from the area. This raises concerns that cannabis development could cut wildlife off from needed resources, or disrupt local animal interactions and food webs. Conflict is also a concern: Many of the species that can coexist with cannabis, such as ground squirrels, can be crop pests that farmers may feel the need to kill.

Yet again, these concerns are not unique to cannabis—across California, new housing developments are encroaching on wilderness areas, and the concern about killing “pest” animals appears with almost any crop. Cannabis provides an opportunity to try to build sustainable farming into policy incentives, and to experiment with supporting farmers in ways that enable them to practice low-impact agriculture.

The social and ecological dynamics of cannabis production are a microcosm of questions of rural livelihoods and sustainability in the Western U.S. Other industries, such as timber, ranching, and industrial crops, like alfalfa, also need reform. But because the legal cannabis industry is still new, it offers an opportunity to learn to structure things differently.

There is still potential and political will for researchers, policymakers, and communities to come together to plan land use priorities, update water policies, guide development goals, inform sustainable best management practices, plan for climate disasters, and balance rural livelihoods.

This is hard work. But if we can figure out a way to collaborate on cannabis regulations, we will have a blueprint for solving the largest land use conflicts currently facing the Western U.S.

Phoebe Parker-Shames is a postdoctoral scholar at UC Berkeley, where she studies the role of humans within ecological systems. She specializes in the environmental outcomes of rural outdoor cannabis legalization.
PRIMARY EDITOR: Caroline Tracey | SECONDARY EDITOR: Sarah Rothbard
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