Let's Not Allow the Marijuana Industry to Write Its Own Rules

Under a tight March 2016 timeline set by new California laws regulating medical marijuana, Humboldt County is scrambling at last to write locally appropriate rules for commercial cannabis cultivation. Among the most significant problems the new rules must address is protecting watersheds already overloaded by rapidly increasing pot-related impacts.

Some commercial growers say they want to be legal, but the attempt by an industry group, California Cannabis Voice – Humboldt (CCVH), to promote an even bigger boom by writing weak rules never quite got off the ground. That’s just as well, because CCVH never really tried to address the environmental impacts of the industry we already have.

Despite that false start, county staff have delivered a strong draft ordinance that could, if tightened up in a few critical areas, set Humboldt County on the path to a marijuana industry we could actually be proud of. Unfortunately, the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors are being pushed not to tighten, but to weaken, the draft rules.

CCVH is arguing that we have to set loose rules to entice growers to participate in a legal industry. But loose rules won’t restrain people who are only in it for the money and are causing real harms. Loose rules won’t protect our watersheds and communities. And loose rules won’t satisfy our environmental laws, which reflect our society’s reasonable expectation that we will not needlessly wreck our rivers, nor drive native fish extinct.

Nestled behind the Redwood Curtain in as beautiful and productive a landscape as exists on this planet, it’s easy to feel our messed-up world would be a better place if the rest of it were more like here. But the problems we face in protecting Humboldt’s environment are problems people face everywhere. Obstacles and pitfalls abound on the path to effective environmental regulation. Most have less to do with nature than with human nature.

Consider Exxon, and what the company knew before it funded a 20-year campaign of climate change denial. Exxon knew by the early 1990s that burning its oil would amplify the greenhouse effect of Earth’s atmosphere, with catastrophic effects for nature and humanity. Exxon knew because its own scientists had done the research confirming the connection between fossil fuel combustion and global warming. And Exxon acted on its knowledge: Even as then-CEO Lee Raymond was lying about the plain facts to Congress, his shareholders and the American public, the company was securing drilling rights in the Arctic that could only be reached if global warming melted the sea ice. Which it now has. Exxon made trillions of dollars pushing the planet closer to the brink.

Assuming humanity survives the gauntlet of terrors we are building for our grandchildren, the Exxon episode is likely to go down as a definitive instance of the principle famously expressed by Upton Sinclair, that “it is difficult to get a man to understand a thing, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” One need not be a comic-book villain like Lee Raymond to deny the bad effects of a system that’s working for you personally. Absent countervailing forces, few do.

Here in Humboldt, our own slice of global environmental crisis is the extinction, now underway, of species that have evolved over millions of years in the places we now call home. Coho salmon are just one of the most spectacular examples of the region’s living wealth whose future now hangs in the balance. Having hung on through overfishing, unregulated logging and draining of the estuary, coho in critical tributaries of the South Fork Eel like Sprowel Creek and Redwook Creek now face extirpation from a deadly combination of water diversions and increased erosion. Humans are taking too much water out of the creeks and pushing too much dirt around. The vast majority of the worst impacts are obviously tied to “medical” marijuana operations that have been rapidly increasing in number and size for years.

But consider the response of CCVH’s Luke Bruner, the Donald Trump of marijuana messaging, to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s warning that weed-related water diversions and sediment loads had amplified the drought to wipe out a generation of coho in Sprowel Creek. “We don’t farm the way the Central Valley corporate types farm. Up here, we take care of nature,” Bruner told the Willits News.

We are not all that different from Exxon. We know now that our fabled Emerald Triangle pot economy cannot be sustained in its current form without lasting harm to our watersheds, our fisheries and our communities. We know that we have taken too much water out of the creeks, and yet we keep pumping. We know that we have carved up too many unstable slopes, and yet we keep digging. We know millions of Californians’ efforts to conserve energy to reduce our carbon footprint have been canceled out by thousands of people using huge amounts of electricity to grow pot indoors, and yet we keep trashing houses to grow weed.

Like Exxon’s executives, our leaders have ethical obligations to tell the truth, and to prevent practices that will harm us all. But that abstract responsibility may weigh little in a political balance against huge amounts of money much more easily made if we just tell ourselves those impacts aren’t all that bad – that those angry environmentalists and jack-booted bureaucrats are just trying to push people off their land — or if we merely conclude that fish in our creeks are nice, but not as nice as a plump, tax-free stack of cash and all the lovely things it can buy.

Even the best among us are prone to self-deception. Nearly everyone in Humboldt is connected or affected somehow, and we have learned not to look too hard at how our friends and neighbors make a living.

As a community, we are having a hard time comprehending what our collective paycheck requires we not understand. But as a society, we have to account both for the fact of our collective impacts, and for the impulse to conceal them, if we are to build a system that will prevent the very harms we find hard to think about.

Another story of corporate crime illuminates the challenge: Volkswagen’s “clean diesel” motors. High-mileage, peppy turbo-diesel Jettas, Passats, Golfs and Beetles have been a big hit around here, and they’ve made VW one of the largest carmakers in the world. But those “clean” diesels turn out not to be so clean – just programmed to meet emissions standards when tested. In normal operation, they deliver great fuel economy, good performance and pollution levels 10 times legal limits. Volkswagen decided they could make more money selling cars that would needlessly hurt people and our planet, if they could just fool regulators into letting them to sell their dirty cars.

Maybe I’m way out on a limb here, but I have been troubled from the beginning of CCVH’s campaign to “legitimize” and “celebrate” the pot farmer’s “way of life,” with its implicit insistence that any environmental problems associated with the weed industry are all about trespass grows and the legendary “few bad apples.” To my jaundiced eye, these self-appointed pot promoters have approached the problem of the weed industry’s impacts as Volkswagen did the challenge of selling their diesels: how can we get regulators to approve our product without changing our polluting practices?

The lesson I take here is that we need to build a regulatory system for marijuana that’s strong enough to secure, for example, the level of watershed protections required to allow coho to recover in their former habitat. If we do not, we are just inviting people who we know cannot bring themselves even to acknowledge their own impacts, who face powerful incentives to ignore laws and rules, and who are immersed in a culture rife with rationalizations, to play their own version of VW’s diesel game: getting permits without actually changing the practices that are wrecking our watersheds. If we build a system of marijuana regulation that makes cheating easy, or even possible, we’ll get cheating. If we build a system that doesn’t include strong enforcement tools, we can be assured many will continue to flaunt even the simplest rules.

This is why we must not merely “discourage” water trucking, but ban it. This is why we shouldn’t allow legal growers to use illegal, dangerous pesticides. This is why we need to set a realistic cap on the number of grows the county will permit, restrict them to sizes that can be easily regulated, and insure they are not done in unsuitable locations. This is why we should institute truly consequential fines for unpermitted commercial grows to immediately discourage any more cut and run grows.

Of course, the reckless pursuit of short-term profit can create huge long-term liabilities, at great cost to the public and our future. Volkswagen faces tens of billions of dollars in fines and costs. The company may be lucky to survive with only the loss of everything it gained by selling dirty diesels in the first place. Having literally followed the tobacco industry’s playbook in funding climate denial, Exxon faces liability and prosecution under the same laws that forced big tobacco to agree to hundreds of billions in settlements for the harm they did.

Here on the North Coast, we already face enormous downstream costs from the damage we’ve allowed to happen over the last decade. If we don’t soon fix the badly built Green Rush roads, stream crossings, and grow sites that have spread across our landscape, a lot more of Humboldt’s hills are going to wind up in our streams and rivers — a deep harm that can be cured only slowly and at great expense. The acute threat of drought and diversion may give way to the chronic crisis of sediment-choked streams. It’s like trading a heart attack for cancer.

We have an historic chance at last to effectively address these festering problems. But we must choose to act. We have to demand our decision-makers don’t just defer to those with the most to gain. We would not let Exxon or Volkswagen write the rules they will follow. Nor do we allow the timber industry or the wine industry to declare they won’t follow watershed-protection rules because they’re too tough. If we did, we’d have very few rules indeed, and even fewer salmon.

Humboldt County’s marijuana entrepreneurs are understandably excited by the prospect of future profits. They would do well to consider, however, that they risk losing what little remains of their social license if the now-legal weed industry continues to cause unnecessary harms. Truly effective rules and strong enforcement will be vital to ensuring the Humboldt brand on which so many hope to capitalize actually means something in the future.

A final note: Because the county has to pass an ordinance quickly, there’s only time to do a Mitigated Negative Declaration, a brief environmental analysis appropriate where no potentially significant environmental impacts can be expected to occur as a result of the proposed program. If the ordinance does successfully prevent the significant impacts clearly associated with the industry today, that course is consistent with the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA. But if the new rules are too weak, their enforcement mechanisms too uncertain, to truly prevent those impacts, CEQA requires more detailed analysis, effective mitigation, consideration of alternative policies and, among otherwise equal alternatives, choice of the most environmentally protective. For our part, Friends of the Eel River will not shirk our duty to seek effective protection for our watersheds and fish.