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The quickening pace of cannabis legalization initiatives across the country has activists and observers increasingly mindful of the negative environmental impacts that the growth of the plant brings about.

Times have changed

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Gone (mostly) are the days that cannabis farmers and growers are perceived by the masses as long-haired, Grateful Dead-obsessed couch potatoes who only conjure the energy to grow a few cannabis plants in between episodes of Darkwing Duck.

Instead, the evolution of the cannabis industry over the past several years has given way to a new kind of cultivator – one that, according to Seattle-based lawyer Eric Christensen, could present a whole new set of challenges for the industry and for the country.

Contrary to the stereotype of marijuana growers as genial and environmentally conscious hippies, illegal marijuana growers are often heavily armed and operate with little or no regard for the environmental impacts of their operations.

The environmental impacts of cannabis cultivation are real and are not going away. The issues are made all the more salient because of the unique challenges posed before and after legalization takes place.

Before legalization

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Illegal growers have already been found to often have detrimental impacts on the environment in a number of ways.

First, the illegal cultivation of cannabis is often accomplished through the use of harmful pesticides.

These chemicals are often effective and less expensive than more traditional or natural means of pest control; however, they have been known to cause severe environmental damage in the surrounding areas, particularly to local water supplies.

Indeed, the impact on local wildlife is a paramount concern in cannabis cultivation. According to studies conducted by researchers at the University of California-Davis, cannabis-traced impacts have been felt upon at least one sea creature known as the fisher, a predator found in the Pacific Northwest.

[The] studies show that about 86 percent of fishers in California have been exposed to rodenticides and that the percentage has been increasing in recent years.

The habitat range of fishers also overlaps nearly perfectly with known illegal pot grows on public and private lands in the state.

Illegal cannabis growth has also been found to be a major source of trash. One example would be the Mendocino National Forest: In 2011, several dozen growth sites were found to contain almost two dozen tons of trash and 57 pounds of pesticides and herbicides, among other potentially harmful findings.

…And after

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Illegal growth operations are not the only opportunities for cannabis cultivation to do potential harm to the environment: State and federal legalization initiatives also present opportunities for environmental damage, as well.

The first is the level of energy waste caused by the home growth of cannabis. States that have legalized the home cultivation of California often cap the number of plants that consumers may grow to a low number. (California, for example, allows six.)

While most cultivation facilities operate on an industrial scale, smaller-scale operations like those in the home have been found to be more likely to waste high amounts of energy.

With many states neglecting to fully address the environmental hazards caused by cannabis legalization, any federal action to legalize recreational or medicinal cannabis will likely have to pick up the slack.

According to one study from UC Berkley, the environmental practices by states legalizing the substance right now are paramount in determining how the policies may be shaped by the federal government in the future.

If legal cannabis production moves toward national acceptance, the importance of developing environmentally sound production practices will grow, and policies made now in Washington and Colorado, the early adopters, may shape practices in the new industry nationwide.

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