Will The Legalization Of Medical Marijuana Impact Forestland Owners?

For years, California forests have suffered significant impacts from the illegal cultivation of marijuana.  In Northern California communities, millions of acres of lush forestland serve as the perfect hideout for those looking to avoid the laws and regulations that protect our wildlife and our watersheds.

The result has been streams and riverbeds that run dry from water diversion; poisonous rodenticides that enter the food chain and threaten endangered wildlife; and, the safety of land owners and workers.

Some thought that legalizing marijuana would help to regulate the industry and help protect the environment.  Though California has yet to legalize the entire marijuana industry, it has moved forward with the legalization of medical marijuana.

As California begins to regulate a new industry, we have to ensure that it abides by the same stringent rules and regulations that are imposed on others in an effort to protect our natural resources.

Yet, so far, we have to question if that will in fact be the case.

Last month, the California Legislature passed SB 839, a budget trailer bill that helps expedite the registration process for medical marijuana growers.  In doing so, it allows growers to avoid some of the costly, time consuming and expensive environmental reviews that the forest owners comply with.

For instance, in order for us to harvest timber, we comply with more than 1,300 planning, operational, and monitoring rules and regulations reviewed by no less than six different state agencies.  In doing so, we must protect wildlife habitats regulated by Calif. Dept. of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW); protect watersheds regulated by water boards; protect air quality regulated by the air boards; provide a stream alteration agreement by CDFW and submit a proposal that is the equivalent of a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) analysis.  This process takes an average of six months to complete and can cost more than $50,000.

In contrast, growers who divert less than 20-acre feet of water annually, don’t have to have a valid water right when applying for a permit.  They only have to show they have applied for one.  They are exempted from a CEQA analysis and do not have to enter into a streambed alteration agreement.

Many existing landowners may ask where a marijuana cultivator’s water is coming from.  How can they obtain a license to cultivate marijuana if they don’t have a valid water right permit?  Will they be diverting water from other users who do possess a valid water right permit?  How will this impact the careful balance of watersheds and wildlife?  And in our 5th year of drought, is there enough water to satisfy existing water rights holders, protect our fish populations and provide extra to growers?

We can’t answer those questions, and many of them will be addressed in soon-to-be developed regulations, but given the stringent laws that forest owners comply with every day, this doesn’t seem to compare.

We ask that our members watch and participate in the regulatory process to ensure that marijuana cultivators are held to the same high standards.

Our concern is that in an attempt to expedite the licensing process, California is sending a message to the medical marijuana industry, that the environment is a secondary concern.

Forestland owners have worked for years to ensure that forests are sustainable and protect both our environment and our economies.  We’d like to see an even playing field when it comes to agricultural harvesting in California and expect that everyone who shares our natural resources are held to the same high standards ‑‑ something that appears to be missing in the latest bill.