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Will Legalized Marijuana Keep California in the Green?

While a legalized marijuana crop wouldn’t solve all of California’s agricultural woes, it might still keep the state in the green. The three-hour Northern California drive from San Francisco to Nevada County passes through some of the cream of the state’s agriculture industry: dairy, alfalfa, rice, almonds, grapes. On both sides of the freeway stretch enormous crop rows, interrupted only by the state capital of Sacramento and a number of small towns.

While a legalized marijuana crop wouldn’t solve all of California’s agricultural woes, it might still keep the state in the green.

The three-hour Northern California drive from San Francisco to Nevada County passes through some of the cream of the state’s agriculture industry: dairy, alfalfa, rice, almonds, grapes. On both sides of the freeway stretch enormous crop rows, interrupted only by the state capital of Sacramento and a number of small towns.

Last fall, I made the trip north to visit a medical marijuana farm in the mountains above Grass Valley, a scenic town in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas. The area is well suited to marijuana cultivation: The land is cheap and sparsely populated; the climate is mild.

When I arrived, I found a ragged property — a small home at the end of a rutted dirt road and a couple of rudimentary drying rooms constructed of plywood and tarps. Enclosed by a wooden fence, the farm overlooked a pristine, pine-filled valley.

The garden was impressive and unimpressive at the same time. Compared to the expensive industrial farming operations I had passed on my way up, it was tiny and unsophisticated. And yet the plants were remarkable. Many were taller than 6 feet and of extraordinary girth; they were held together by an elaborate system of plastic netting. From their limbs hung heavy, densely crystallized buds, each waiting to be dried and trimmed.

Since California voters legalized medical marijuana in 1996, and particularly since the state Legislature specified how much pot could be cultivated for medical purposes, in 2003, growing marijuana in California has become extremely lucrative. The street value of the state’s crop was roughly $14 billion in 2008. Walking through the garden, it wasn’t hard for me to see why — each pound of buds harvested from the enormous plants would fetch upwards of $3,000 at medical marijuana dispensaries.

Farms like the one I visited have helped guarantee stories about marijuana entrepreneurs. Last year it netted a healthy profit for its young bohemian proprietors, who ensured that it stayed within legal cultivation limits. During my visit, one of them told me the cliché is true: A second gold rush has hit Northern California.

But in all of the press coverage of marijuana, one story has been overlooked. It has to do with the health of California’s agriculture industry. The most bountiful farming region in the world, the Golden State is contending with three potentially catastrophic problems: population growth, dwindling water resources and climate change. Marijuana could potentially provide a bulwark against a future of steadily declining crop yields.

California is a farming utopia. Its mild climate and rich soil have allowed farmers to build on it an agricultural system of unparalleled sophistication and value. Half of America’s produce, and a large portion of its dairy, comes from California.

And yet the idyll evoked by the Golden State’s nickname, while not misplaced, conceals a dark and abiding problem. Ever since the end of the 19th century, when systematic irrigation was introduced to California, water — or, more accurately, a lack of water — has shaped the state’s agricultural history.

In the last 90 years, a vast network of reservoirs and aqueducts has been built to capture and transport water throughout California. It is an enormous feat of engineering, and so far it has delayed the detonation of what Mark Reisner (who wrote Cadillac Desert, the definitive history of the West’s water woes) referred to as the “ecological time-bomb” hovering over California.

But that detonation may be on the horizon. Most of California farmland is semi-arid, and each year, the state’s population grows by an average of a half million people. By 2040, this makes for 50 million Californians, and competition for water between farmers and city dwellers will be intense.

So it does not bode well that the flow of the Colorado River, from which Southern California gets a substantial portion of its water, is declining steadily. Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada are all taking their full allotments of water from the West’s largest river, which has been so deeply desiccated over the decades that it no longer reaches the ocean, in Mexico.

Nor is it comforting that groundwater — much of it fossil water that cannot be replenished — is being sucked dry across the state.

But particularly alarming is the likelihood that climate change is going to permanently shrink the most important source of water in California: the snow that amasses in the Sierra Nevadas. Every year between the months of November and April, when temperatures drop below freezing and Pacific storms slam into its western flank, the range named for its white-tipped peaks becomes a natural reservoir, collecting an enormous volume of frozen precipitation. As the snowpack melts in the spring and summer, a steady flow of freshwater is released into the valleys below. That water accounts for the Sacramento Delta, California’s primary aboveground water source.

In 2004, a group of University of California, Berkeley, researchers used complex modeling tools to project what will happen to the snowpack if climate change continues to progress under a “medium-warming scenario.” The results were bracing. By 2050, the researchers found, global warming will shrink the snowpack by up to 50 percent. By 2100 the figure rises to 90 percent.

The gravity of this finding, which has since been supported by research out of Purdue University, is difficult to exaggerate. It led Steven Chu, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist appointed energy secretary by President Obama, to tell the Los Angeles Times last February that should climate change continue at its current pace, “We’re looking at a scenario where there’s no more agriculture in California.”

For 50 years running, California has been the No. 1 agriculture state in the nation. What threatens farming in California threatens the state as a whole. Agriculture employs more than 1 million Californians and generates more than $100 billion in economic activity, excluding marijuana revenue. If California faces a future of diminished cropland, could pot break some of the fall?

To call the growing scene in Northern California a hippie redoubt would be an exaggeration. Many rural Northern Californians have been growing pot for decades. But an environmentalist ethos is common. The proprietors of the farm I visited ate organic food and did their gardening listening to podcasts of NPR and Democracy Now. (One grower I met had listened, over the course of the growing season, to the New and Old Testaments, Dante’s Inferno, Moby Dick, and more than 50 This American Lifes.) Many farms have solar panels; high-grade growers commonly mix their own organic fertilizer.

Still, by no stretch of the imagination is outdoor pot farming — even at the high end — an environmentally benign process. That was one of the first things the lead grower on the farm I visited pointed out. They work to be environmentally responsible, he said, but there’s no way to get around the fact that marijuana is a thirsty crop, and growing big plants requires a considerable amount of water.

Worse, most of the low-grade marijuana in the state comes from vast, entirely illegal growing operations tucked deep into national parks and national forest up and down California. Funded primarily by Mexican drug gangs, these farms are violently ecologically destructive. Their growers run miles of irrigation pipe through pristine wildland, cut down sections of forest and chaparral, apply enormous amounts of toxic synthetic fertilizer and pesticides, and abandon the detritus of a five-month growing season immediately following their harvest.

By the end of California’s most recent drought, which began in 2007, state and federally operated reservoirs were at their lowest levels since 1992. Many farmers were forced to let their lands lie fallow. If this and worse represents the state’s agricultural future, shouldn’t marijuana eradication efforts be stepped up, not relaxed? Pot isn’t food, and while more and more Americans consider it a benign recreational stimulant, most still do not. The idea that valuable crop water is being used to grow pot is upsetting to many people, including farmers.

But stepped up eradication is not the direction in which California is heading. Last year Tom Ammiano, a state senator from San Francisco, introduced legislation to fully legalize marijuana as a way to create new tax revenue for the state, which is in a deep fiscal trough. In the fall, Californians will vote on a ballot initiative that would fully legalize marijuana cultivation and make smoking pot legal for Californians over the age of 21. (It’s import is mostly symbolic, though — should it pass, the federal Justice Department almost certainly would move to invalidate the measure or yank out its teeth in court.)

Proponents argue that legalization would drive the enormous, ecologically disastrous farms run by Mexican mafias out of business. Legalization, they say, would lead agribusiness to take over the low-grade, mass-cultivation sector of the industry; those companies, in turn, would be regulated by the state to ensure responsible farming practices.

But they have so far failed to note a potentially more important virtue of marijuana legalization, namely that in an increasingly dry century, it has an enormous ecological — and by extension economic — advantage over California’s other cash crops. The advantage derives from a simple metric: price. No crop in California, including the most expensive wine grapes, even remotely approaches the price of marijuana by volume. In 2008, a comparably tiny marijuana harvest, concentrated in a handful of Northern California counties, generated twice as much revenue as the state’s second leading cash crop, dairy.

According to an analysis conducted by state officials, the market price for marijuana would likely drop by half or more if it were fully legalized. But they also believe the drop would be accompanied by a significant growth in the number of people buying pot — they put the figure at 40 percent.

That projection is deeply provisional, but it’s reasonable to assume that the overall market for marijuana would grow significantly were it legalized. Such growth wouldn’t be painless — many small Northern California pot economies would suddenly have to vie with lower prices and, potentially, competition from powerful agriculture corporations. And of course the “October Millionaires,” the Northern Californians who rake in cash at the end of every fall harvest, would have to develop new business models — perhaps modeled after Northern California’s rich boutique wine industry — or risk extinction.

But while fewer individuals would get rich, the industry dedicated to the cultivation and sale of marijuana would expand. That would mean more work for agricultural workers, more associated economic activity and more taxes. Of course, it would also mean more resource use. More marijuana would be grown, requiring more land, more energy and, critically, more water. And when that marijuana is harvested and sold, it would cost less. What then would separate it from any other of the state’s major cash crops, other than the fact that it’s not food, and thus unessential?

There are two answers. First, while growing outdoor pot is not especially ecologically benign, it’s far more benign than raising commodities like cattle, rice or alfalfa. Consider: Agriculture uses 80 percent of California’s developed water supply; alfalfa soaks up a full 20 percent of that. The alfalfa is used primarily to create forage for feedlot and dairy. That means that 1 gallon out of every 5 used in California goes to a crop that humans can’t eat.

People don’t make a meal of marijuana either, of course. But measured by water, marijuana barely registers on the California’s water scale. A pound of pot requires, at the outermost limit, 250 gallons to grow, which means that a large serving of it requires about a half pint of water. By contrast, an orange takes 13 gallons water, a glass of wine 32 gallons, and a hamburger 600 gallons.

The second reason marijuana has an ecological advantage again is price. Even if it were legalized, it would still take far less of it to generate substantial economic activity for California than any other of the state’s crops. If following legalization market prices for the pot grown on the farm I visited dropped by half, a pound of it would still cost $1,000 to $1,500 dollars.

Many advocates believe that California and other states will soon fully legalize marijuana. Whether they’re correct is a matter of considerable doubt. Although popular support for the legalization of medical marijuana is growing stronger in some parts of the country, experts say it is unlikely that the Justice Department would agree to look the other way if a state legalized marijuana outright.

If that’s true, it means that for any state to fully legalize pot, Congress and the president will have to create legislation granting them the right to do so — not an unfathomable event, necessarily, but also one unlikely to occur any time soon.

But even presuming that a substantial portion of California’s pot crop continues to come from illegal, ecologically destructive farms — as well as high-grade medical marijuana collectives like the one I visited — the overall environmental footprint, including the cumulative water usage, of California marijuana industry is barely worth mentioning compared to the industrial farming operations that produce the state’s other leading cash crops.

As of the writing of this article, in late February, California has spent three months inundated by El Niño-driven rainstorms. And yet reservoirs around the state were still only half full — a testament to the severity of the state’s most recent drought. Due to El Niño, 2010 looks less bleak than it did three months ago. That is a welcome development, considering that the drought forced 23,000 farm workers out of work in 2009 and idled 300,000 acres of cropland in California.

But El Niño is a temporary reprieve. Circumstances are conspiring to produce in California a water crisis of unprecedented proportions. Although the U.S still retains a statistically relevant proportion of citizens who are skeptical about the greenhouse effect, there is no scientific question that significant climate change is now inevitable. California is going to get hotter and drier; the question is not for how long, but how much hotter and how much drier.

Although the press has paid the issue relatively little note, scientists and state officials are acutely aware that California’s agriculture industry is facing an uncertain future. They are likewise cognizant that marijuana is a potentially substantial economic resource, in a state roiled by fiscal and economic crises. But very few people seem to be talking about the two in combination.

In researching this article I called scientists, academics, drug policy experts, marijuana legalization advocates, representatives of various state agencies related to agriculture and water, and the U.S. Forest Service. All were apologetic; none could provide me with specific knowledge or insight into the relationship between marijuana, agriculture and the state’s ecological future.

The explanation was simple: Marijuana is illegal, and therefore there exists only the most basic data on it. But there may be another explanation, too: When we think of agricultural, we think of citrus and cattle, grapes and almonds. We don’t think of pot.

Recently I drove from Wolverton, a backcountry ski area high in Sequoia National Park, down Highway 198 into Fresno, and on to San Francisco. The 198, which skirts a large portion of the southwestern Sierra Nevada, is among the most breathtaking of California’s beautiful drives. For the first hour, I was sandwiched between redwood trees and 6- to 8-foot-high snow banks.

But I soon descended into the Central Valley, and the verdant grasslands of Tulare County. At one point, near the town of Dunlap, I drove through an enormous citrus farm; lining the road for more than a mile were 30-foot-tall orange trees dripping with fruit. It was a stunning reminder of California’s status as an agricultural powerhouse; it seemed totally alien to consider marijuana in the same context.

But from an economic and ecological standpoint, marijuana is an agricultural product, like any other. Out of sight, it nevertheless dominates the rest of California’s farming bounty, as impressive as that bounty is. This in mind, it seems worthwhile for any discussion of the merits, or demerits, of California’s marijuana industry to take into account the state’s warming future. What role will marijuana play in an agriculture landscape less golden than parched?

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