Josh Harkinson

Josh Harkinson

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Born in Texas and based in San Francisco, Josh covers tech, labor, drug policy, and the environment. PGP public key.

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Illegal Pot Farms Are Literally Sucking California Salmon Streams Dry

| Fri Mar. 27, 2015 4:06 PM EDT
Outlet Creek watershed in Northern California's Mendocino County. Scott Bauer

Northern California pot farmers are using up all of the water that normally supports key populations of the region's federally protected salmon and steelhead trout.

That, at least, is the conclusion of a new study, published last week in the journal PLOS One, that examined four California watersheds where salmon and trout are known to spawn. In the three watersheds with intensive pot cultivation, illegal marijuana farms literally sucked up all of the water during the streams' summer low-flow period, leaving nothing to support the fish.

"The current scale of marijuana cultivation in Northern California could be catastrophic for aquatic species."

Author Scott Bauer, a biologist with the state department of fish and wildlife, estimated the size and location of outdoor and greenhouse pot farms by looking at Google Earth images and accompanying drug enforcement officers on raids. He did not include "indoor" grows—marijuana grown under lamps in buildings.

After visiting 32 marijuana greenhouses in eight locations and averaging the results, Bauer extrapolated his findings to all greenhouses in the study area—virtually nothing else is grown in greenhouses in this part of the country. The sites contained marijuana plants at a density of about one per square meter, with each plant (taking waste and other factors into account) using about six gallons of water a day. Overall, he calculated, pot operations within the study yielded 112,000 plants, and consumed 673,000 gallons of water every day.

And that is water the area's fish badly need. The Coho salmon population is listed as threatened under both state and federal Endangered Species Acts, and is designated as a key population to maintain or improve as part of the state's recovery plan. 

Bauer collected his data last year, at a time when California's drought had already become its worst in more than 1,200 years. When I spoke to him at the time, he told me that pot farming had surpassed logging and development to become the single biggest threat to the area's salmon. Now that that the drought is expected to extend into a fourth year, the same streams could run dry again this summer, and remain so for an even longer period of time.

Overall, the outdoor and greenhouse grows consume more than 60 million gallons of water a day during the growing season—50 percent more than is used by all the residents of San Francisco.

"Clearly, water demands for the existing level of marijuana cultivation in many Northern California watersheds are unsustainable and are likely contributing to the decline of sensitive aquatic species in the region," Bauer's study concludes. "Given the specter of climate change"—and the attendant rise of megadroughts—"the current scale of marijuana cultivation in Northern California could be catastrophic for aquatic species."

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Why Is This US Attorney So Gung-Ho on Prosecuting a Respected Medical-Pot Dispensary?

| Tue Feb. 17, 2015 5:29 PM EST
Melinda Haag, US Attorney for Northern California.

Several California congressional representatives issued a statement Friday accusing the Department of Justice of "not acting within the spirit or letter of the law" in its pursuit of a three-year-old legal case aimed at shutting down Harborside Health Center, one of the country's largest and most respected pot dispensaries.

"As Members of Congress we have watched the public acceptance of medical marijuana develop and grow while the Federal policy on it stagnates," wrote Reps. Sam Farr, Dana Rohrabacher, and Barbara Lee.

In 2012, US Attorney Melinda Haag initiated civil forfeiture proceedings against Harborside, which does $25 million a year in sales, on the grounds that it had grown too big. The move came as shock to many in California's medical marijuana industry; Harborside was widely viewed as one of the state's most ethical and legally compliant dispensaries. A few months later, the City of Oakland sued to block Haag's case, arguing that shutting down Harborside would create a public health crisis.

"It's clear now that Melinda Haag is the real criminal," says Harborside founder Steven DeAngelo.

The following year, the Justice Department issued a memo laying out a more permissive federal policy on pot, and federal prosecutors dropped similar civil forfeiture proceedings against several dispensaries in Los Angeles. But in Northern California, Haag pressed on with her case against Harborside and the Berkeley Patients Group, another large, well-respected dispensary.

Motivated in part by Haag's prosecutions, Reps. Farr and Rohrabacher won a provision in December's federal appropriations bill that blocks the DOJ from spending money to prosecute medical marijuana dispensaries or patients that abide by state laws. The move was expected to be the nail in the coffin for Haag's pot cases. But on February 3, she appeared before 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to push the case forward, arguing that the City of Oakland shouldn't be allowed to challenge the proceedings.

"It's clear now that Melinda Haag is the real criminal in the Harborside case," says Harborside founder Steven DeAngelo. Haag's office could not immediately be reached for comment.

The DOJ's ongoing pursuit of the case has led to much debate about Haag's motivations. Some observers wonder if she's simply a dyed-in-the-wool drug warrior. Others speculate that the DOJ sees the case as a way to continue to discourage the expansion of marijuana businesses in California, where pot laws are notoriously loose and decentralized.

"It can be dismaying to me as a businessperson to have these persistent attacks keep coming at Harborside and see most of the rest of the industry not similarly targeted," DeAngelo says. "But I did not get into this industry to make lots of money, I got into this to make cannabis legal. And I think we are gong to win."

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