Sonoma County, Northern California — One of the United States’ top four cannabis-growing counties is Sonoma County, California. In 2016, it became legal for adults to consume marijuana in California. One of the nation’s first dispensaries, Peace in Medicine, was founded here.
Disclosure: I’m a Peace in Medicine patient in small town Sebastopol. CBD-rich cannabis improves my health. I support legal cannabis growing that follows the rules and does not endanger creeks, wildlife, or neighbors, especially children.
Cannabis is a front-page story in our daily Press Democrat. “Environmentalists say proposed cannabis grow rules fail to protect wildlife,” headlines an August 9, 2017, article. It reports four groups faulting state rules for “failing to protect imperiled species.”
“The Center for Biological Diversity, a national conservation nonprofit,” the article continues, “and three allies filed a 36-page comment alleging numerous shortcomings in the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s draft report on the proposed standards for growing legal marijuana.”
Among the threatened wildlife are foxes, eagles, owls, bobcats, raccoons, fishers, and others. The harm comes mainly from eating poisons or rodents killed by toxins. A huge amount of water is needed for marijuana plants; it is often taken illegally from nearby streams and huge wells, compromising both neighbors and wildlife.
“Sixty percent of all cannabis grown in the country comes from four California counties: Sonoma, Marin, Mendocino, and Humboldt,” reports the July 4 issue of the region’s weekly Bohemian. Its support for cannabis includes headlines like “Off the Booze…and on the weed” and “Joint Venture: Wine and pot mergers are coming.”
The corporate wine industry has already purchased most of the local vineyards and wineries here in Sonoma County, displacing food farms and driving up land and home prices. Many locals have left for less expensive places and more privacy away from the massive tourism taking over the county.
“California’s cannabis industry is conservatively valued at $7 billion,” according to the Bohemian. Meanwhile, “the state’s grape crop is pegged at about $5 billion.” According to executive director of a cannabis industry trade group “70% or more growers will stay in the black market or find something else to do.” That would be many illegal sites.
Visiting an Illegal Grow Operation
A food farming neighbor here in Blucher Creek Watershed, Lari Adams, emailed this reporter August 7 that a new neighbor had just bulldozed a huge area to construct large cannabis grow buildings. We immediately visited the site—now a disaster to many life forms dependent on that water, including listed endangered California freshwater shrimp, much wildlife, vegetation, and humans.
“What we saw was jaw dropping. Land cleared, all the topsoil pushed into the creek bed,” wrote Adams. The environmental consequences will be long-lasting and hard to remedy soon, certainly not before the coming rains that farmers and others depend upon. Then plastic, silt, and sedimentation will wash into the stream, choking and polluting it downstream.
“Landscaping filled the tributary, so needed for flood protection. A 100-foot building replaced what three days prior was a virgin field. Three more large building sites were cleared, and the topsoil pushed into the riparian zone. Miles of plastic, barrels of chemicals, fertilizer piles, and marijuana plants arrived. We actually stood there mouths agape! How can this happen?” added Adams.
He contacted the Bloomfield/Lone Pine/Cunningham Neighborhood Association, which researched the parcel and moved promptly into action. No permits existed for this devastation. The violation was reported to various government officials and agencies, including County Supervisors David Rabbitt and Lynda Hopkins. They responded promptly and effectively.
“Illegal grows are a huge concern, environmentally and socially,” wrote Supervisor Hopkins. “Unfortunately they give the folks doing the right thing (going through County permitting processes and growing in appropriate locations) a bad name,” she added.
Neighbours Push Back
On the next day, representatives from the North Coast Regional Water Quality Board, the county’s Permit and Resources Management (PRMD), Supervisor Rabbitt’s office, and the Neighborhood Association met at Adams’ farm. The government officials visited the grow, and shut it down. Though the buildings are gone, the damage will be long lasting.
The new owner then put it up for sale, at a higher price, though to remedy his abuse will likely take years and thousands of dollars. We reminded his agent that a full disclosure was necessary; he took the “For Sale” sign down, though he did not take the listing off line.
Another neighbor showed the neighborhood group an un-permitted grow nearby. The group also managed to get that operation shut down. “Weeks ago, huge earth-moving equipment came onto the property that adjoins us, graded a large area and began to construct a massive greenhouse for commercial cannabis, all without a permit,” said Patrick Ball.
“Families with children live on both sides and across the street. We are on wells and worry about the massive amount of water a commercial cannabis operation consumes. If this is allowed on the large scale intended, we will have lost the safety, peace, and well-being that makes our neighborhood such a wonderful place to live,” Ball added.
“Country life shared with neighbors, wild animals that we see daily, domestic animals that we dearly love, and the habitat that we enjoy has been one of life’s greatest rewards,” writes Judy Logan, who lives nearby. “We must steward our land and water and be sensitive to endangered creatures to continue this lovely gift bestowed upon our hearts.”
Hundreds of such un-permitted cannabis operations are popping up around the county and elsewhere, especially in Northern California. This endangers food farming, as well as the environment and neighborhoods.
“I voted to legalize medical cannabis because I value its medical benefits,” writes Roberta Teller. “I hoped that instead of unregulated growers with unknown, questionable agricultural practices, legalization would guarantee a high quality product and consumers and members of the community would be protected from unsavory business operations,” she added.
“Unfortunately, this is not the case. We have a Cannabis Board filled with people from the industry. I know of a case where a realtor falsely advertised a property as agricultural in hopes for a quick sale to the next illegal grower,” Teller said.
“Land is being fenced off, fences are getting higher, animal habitats are being compromised and newly installed security cameras are spying on us. We need Sonoma County to step up to the job of regulating this already spiraling out-of-control Industry,” she concluded.
To cannabis growers out there, please do it the right way. Growing should not only benefit you financially, but also the environment, its many critters, and neighbors. The Bloomfield/Lone Pine/Cunningham Neighborhood Association watches cannabis growing carefully.
Growers without permits should avoid the Blucher Creek Watershed, which has a cannabis watch group with neighbors willing to work to shut you down, unless you have the necessary permits.
This group does not oppose appropriate, permitted cannabis growing. “I’m so grateful that medical CBD cannabis is now available,” wrote Alexandra Hart, co-founder of the neighborhood group. “It provides my 78-year-old arthritic body almost instant relief with no side effects, save a little, quite pleasant buzz. The speed with which the greedy are taking advantage without following environmental guidelines and neighborliness is distressing. Our human greed may well cost us our planet.”