- Author: Kara Manke
Cannabis is unlike any other agricultural crop. Because of its circuitous history — once illegal to grow, and now legal but heavily regulated — cannabis has cast a unique footprint on the environment and the communities of farmers who grow it.
UC Berkeley's new Cannabis Research Center, announced today by a multidisciplinary team of faculty, will explore how cannabis production impacts the environment and society, and how these impacts will evolve under new regulations set in place by legalization.
While other research groups in the University of California are focusing on the individual and public health ramifications of cannabis, the center will be the first in the UC system to explore oft-overlooked dimensions of cannabis growth.
Berkeley News spoke with center co-directors Van Butsic and Ted Grantham, both assistant cooperative extension specialists in UC Berkeley's Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management, to learn more about the state of cannabis production in California and the center's goals.
Ted Grantham: My research primarily focuses on the impacts of water use. These farms are taking water directly from streams or from groundwater wells connected to streams. Most farms are located in smaller watersheds, so even though the total amount of water taken can be small, it can have a big impact on streams that support sensitive species, such as salmon. Other potential ecological impacts relate to the use of pesticides and fertilizers, and habitat fragmentation from building roads and clearing trees.
The social scientists in the center are also concerned about equity and the sustainability of growing communities. Historically many growers would be characterized as small-scale, and there is concern that through this process of legalization, there is going to be a consolidation of cannabis production following models of industrial agriculture. We are trying to understand if there is a way to have cannabis cultivation continue to sustain local economies and rural communities, while limiting impacts to the environment.
How have legalization and associated regulations affected cannabis production so far?
Van Butsic: We're about a year into the formal legalization of recreational cannabis production and it has been a rocky start. There have been fewer participants in the market — producers — than were anticipated. Some growers appear to have gone out of production, many appear to remain in black market production and a relatively small subset of growers have gone through the process of compliance. And the grower community that has pursued legal production are very vocal about the issues and challenges facing their group. We have been trying to better understand what are the barriers to compliance and, ultimately, if there can be changes made in policies that can really help to catalyze this transition.
Van Butsic: This is a great system to study really big sustainability problems. How do we develop an agricultural system that's good for the environment and good for farmers? And cannabis is a really interesting spot to look at it because the regulations enforcing cannabis are totally different than in the rest of agriculture, so it would be really interesting to see if we get different outcomes.
How do regulations differ between cannabis production and the rest of agriculture?
Van Butsic: Cultivators need to be permitted by the state water board, by local government and by state government to grow cannabis legally, and there are environmental regulations in all three of those levels that they need to comply with that require a higher order of environmental performance than most other agricultural crops.
So you think that understanding these regulations might help you apply them to other types of agriculture?
Van Butsic: Exactly. Agriculture has been notoriously difficult to regulate in the past, and this is a system where the regulators got the upper hand, and so it will be interesting to see how the producers respond, and if cannabis producers can be profitable and meet these super-high environmental performance measures, then perhaps there is knowledge and technology that can transfer from the cannabis industry to the rest of agriculture that can improve environmental performance of food production.
We are working on a big project right now where we are mapping where all the farms are after the latest regulatory changes. We want to know, if we could take down these barriers and everybody became compliant, what would that mean for local water budgets, environmental health and for the amount of cannabis that would be produced?
Ted Grantham: This is a rapidly changing industry, and no one really knows where it is headed. Everyone is playing catch up to a certain extent, and we believe researchers have an important role in bringing independent scientific information to conversations around cannabis policy.
- Author: Julie Van Scoy
Reposted from the UCANR Green Blog
As policy liberalization rapidly transforms the multi-billion-dollar cannabis agriculture industry in the United States, the need for regulation and assessment of environmental impacts becomes increasingly apparent.
A recent study led by UC Cooperative Extension specialist Van Butsic used high resolution satellite imagery to conduct a systematic survey of cannabis production and to explore its potential ecological consequences.
Published this spring in Environmental Research Letters, the study focused on the “emerald-triangle” in northern California's Humboldt, Mendocino, and Trinity counties, which many believe is the top cannabis-producing region in the United States.
The UC Berkeley-based Butsic and his co-author Jacob Brenner used Google Earth imagery to locate and map grow sites (both greenhouses and outdoor plots) in 60 watersheds. Most cannabis grow sites are very small, and have gone undetected when researchers used automated remote sensing techniques, which are commonly used to detect larger changes such as deforestation.
“We chose to use fine-grained imagery available in Google Earth and to systematically digitize grows by hand, identifying individual plants. Most plants stand out as neat, clear, little circles,” said Brenner, who is on the faculty of the Department of Environmental Studies and Science at Ithaca College. “The method was laborious — it took over 700 hours — but it proved to be highly accurate.”
Butsic and Brenner paired their image analysis with data on the spatial characteristics of the sites (slope, distance to rivers, distance to roads) and information on steelhead trout and Chinook salmon, both of which are listed as threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act. These and other species are vulnerable to the low water flows, soil erosion, and chemical contamination that can result from nearby agriculture.
Results of the study show 4,428 grow sites, most of which were located on steep slopes far from developed roads. Because these sites will potentially use significant amounts of water and are near the habitat for threatened species, Butsic and Brenner conclude that there is a high risk of negative ecological consequences.
“The overall footprint of the grows is actually quite small [~2 square kiliometers], and the water use is only equivalent to about 100 acres of almonds,” says Butsic, who is in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management at Berkeley. According to Butsic, California currently has more than one million irrigated acres of almonds.
He stresses that the issue lies in the placement of the sites: “Close to streams, far from roads, and on steep slopes — cannabis may be a case of the right plant being in the wrong place.”
Last year, California legislature passed laws designed to regulate medical marijuana production, and state voters will weigh in on whether to legalize recreational marijuana this coming fall. Given these changes as well as the profitability of cannabis production, Butsic expects that marijuana cultivation will expand into other sites with suitable growing conditions throughout the region. He and Brenner assert that ecological monitoring of these hotspots should be a top priority.
Bills recently signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown have made some advances in this direction — requiring municipalities to develop land use ordinances for cannabis production, forcing growers to obtain permits for water diversions, and requiring a system to track cannabis from when it is first planted until it reaches consumers.
But the researchers say that regulation will likely be a constant challenge because it will rely on monitoring procedures that are just now emerging, as well as voluntary registration from producers and budget allocation from the state for oversight and enforcement.
“Some of the same fundamental challenges that face researchers face regulators as well, primarily that cannabis agriculture remains a semi-clandestine activity,” says Brenner. “It has a legacy of lurking in the shadows. We just don't know — and can't know — where every grow exists or whether every grower is complying with new regulations.”