By Kristin Nevedal and Nate Bradley | Published in The Sacramento Bee
As leaders in California’s maturing medical cannabis industry, we are well aware of the potential environmental impacts associated with cannabis cultivation.
The main question coming up in relationship to these impacts is: Why aren’t cannabis cultivators held to the same guidelines and requirements as other farmers or grape growers?
The short answer is: If you want cannabis cultivators to act like farmers and follow agricultural guidelines, then regulate medical cannabis production as an agricultural crop, produced for human consumption.
When cannabis cultivators are held to specific regulatory standards and receive permits for their farms they are more likely to apply for the required permits associated with land development, such as land conversions, grading, water draws and agricultural discharges. We have seen this firsthand in areas where cultivation has been permitted, such as Mendocino and Yuba counties.
It is our firm stance that all cannabis farming should be done in a regulated manner without trespassing on public or private lands, abiding by all local, state and federal air quality, water quality, forest protection and land-use laws.
The recent media coverage highlighting the environmental impacts of cannabis cultivation has caught the attention of legislators, regulators and elected officials. But it’s no news to those of us who have been working to improve best management practices within what is, after all, California’s No. 1 cash crop. Let’s not forget that the medical cannabis industry provides thousands upon thousands of jobs and pays millions of dollars to state and local jurisdictions in taxes.
The North Coast Regional Water Quality Board has naturally been in the forefront of this issue as cannabis cultivation has proliferated in their region. Many voices have asked why cannabis cultivation isn’t formally a part of its Agricultural Lands Discharge Program. But the North Coast Regional Water Quality Board’s current strategy is to address cannabis cultivation through educational outreach alone. This limited role will continue as long as the legal concerns about permitting and/or regulating remain unclear in the absence of a statewide regulatory system.
We cannot emphasize enough that a large part of the environmental impacts being blamed on cannabis cultivation are the result of the cumulative impacts associated with both farming and the overall industrialization of our watersheds. Each home that is built puts a straw in the creek, just as each agricultural plot has the potential to pollute and tax our vital water sources.
Sensible policies shouldn’t increase criminal penalties, environmental penalties or attempt to prohibit cannabis cultivation all together. The answer is to put forth sensible regulation for medical cannabis cultivators that treat them like farmers and educate them on best management practices. The advantages to this are many, including the fact that sensible regulation will draw a line in the sand for law enforcement, eliminating the current gray area that allows cartels to thrive under the guise of California’s undefined medical cannabis laws.
In Yuba County in 2011, a group of medical marijuana growers heard that the county was going to pass an ordinance to control cultivation. They knew they didn’t want to face stiff restrictions like growers in other counties were facing, so they organized, formed the Yuba County Growers Association and began to reach out to local government.
After several months of meetings, filing a lawsuit and finally going into arbitration, Yuba County and the growers association were able to craft a sensible ordinance that both sides could agree on. That year with a new cultivation ordinance in their arsenal and clipboards full of new rules and regulations, Yuba County deputies and code enforcement officers were able to go out and crack down on problem growers who had been creating public safety nightmares in neighborhoods. This would not have been possible if Yuba County had not come together with the stakeholders throughout the community to create a solution.
Just as with any other industry in California, the medical cannabis industry can only professionalize itself as regulations themselves progress. From Mendocino to Yuba it has been shown that when medical cannabis stakeholders and elected officials work together, functional, sensible policy is the outcome.
Kristin Nevedal is the founding chair of the Emerald Growers Association and lives in Garberville. Nate Bradley is the executive director of the California Cannabis Industry Association, served in law enforcement in Yuba County, advised the Yuba County Growers Association and lives in Lincoln.