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Environmental Advocates See Legalization as ‘Opportunity’

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The State of California is in the midst of a drought, and fingers are being pointed at several particularly thirsty crops: almonds, alfalfa and, yes, cannabis.

Illegal marijuana growers divert rivers and streams to water their plants, clear-cut sections of forest and often use polluting chemicals that run off into nearby waters.

But a leading environmental organization says the plant’s anticipated legalization in the Golden State provides a chance to better protect natural resources by regulating growers.

Legalization efforts “present a significant opportunity to make sure California gets on the right track towards reducing, regulating, and mitigating environmental harms associated with marijuana cultivation,” says a prominent post on the website of the California chapter of The Nature Conservancy.

The group says that existing state efforts to enforce environmental laws on lands used for marijuana cultivation are badly underfunded, and points out that tax revenue from legalization could provide helpful resources to better protect waterways and forests.

“The scale of the existing marijuana markets in California and elsewhere suggest that taxation and fines could fund these measures,” the post says. “If legalization for recreational purposes moves forward in California, sales may generate between $ 650 million to $ 1.5 billion in tax revenue. We’d like to see a portion of the tax revenue generated from these marijuana markets go to regulating and enforcing land and water use, cleaning up pollution at grow sites, and restoring land and waters damaged by marijuana cultivation.”

Noting that neither Colorado nor Washington State earmark a portion of marijuana tax revenues to the environment, The Nature Conservancy says that “California can and should become the first state to build strong environmental protections into marijuana policies, and do the right thing by the environment.”

In a separate document mailed to supporters, Mike Sweeney, the group’s executive director, compares the currently illegal marijuana market to the legal and regulated wine industry.

“Wine-grape growers are not only responsible for making sure their crop doesn’t hurt the environment, they are working with us to find new ways of keeping water in streams during the dry summer months when salmon need it most,” the mailer says. “Legalization [of marijuana]for recreational use in California is on the horizon, opening up a window of opportunity to educate people about the environmental damage done by unregulated pot farms.”

In an additional piece on Huffington Post, Sweeney writes, “Winemakers often take water when it’s plentiful and store it for use in dry months, while marijuana growers typically suck water straight from rivers and streams during the dry and hot California summers, precisely when nature needs it most. U.S. grown tobacco and crops used in beer and spirits also abide by these strict guidelines for water use, chemicals and growing practices.”

The mailer and the web pieces suggest that the emerging legal marijuana industry will be watched and pressured to adopt sustainable practices by the environmental community.

“We need to be as demanding about pot as we are about other crops and land use. California grows the majority of the nation’s pot, and we can demand it be grown in sustainable ways,” writes Sweeney. “Imagine a day when the windows of pot clubs are lined with environmental superlatives. ‘Drought-tolerant blunt’ anyone?”

All of this is only possible under legalization; the drug cartels and criminal gangs that control the illegal marijuana market don’t seem particularly responsive to environmental concerns. But even though the The Nature Conservancy seems to understand the opportunities that the end of prohibition presents, it isn’t officially pushing for legalization.

The group “isn’t advocating for the legalization of marijuana, but we do think it’s time to set aside more substantial funds and resources for environmental protection, enforcement, and restoration of lands and waters affected by this industry,” the website post says. “Marijuana growers should be responsible for any environmental damage they inflict, whether they are growing the crop for the black market, the medical market, or, in the future, a potential recreational market.”

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