Thousands of people have benefitted since California became the first state to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes. However, a great deal of pot is still grown illegally in California, and the illegal growing operations are doing some quite significant damage to our state’s fragile environment. Over-fertilized water feeds algae blooms and turns ponds green. Pot cultivation exploits already low rivers, contaminates drinking water, and pollutes vital fisheries. Bulldozers mow down pine and redwood groves. The damage has increased as organized, commercial pot cultivating operations have replaced the hippies who grew marijuana in previous decades.

In response, law enforcement agencies are using an aggressive new tactic to fight illegal marijuana cultivation in Humboldt County, the largest source of illegal cannabis in California. Law enforcement officers are charging cultivators with violating local and state environmental laws as well as criminal laws. Estelle Fennell, a member of Humboldt County’s Board of Supervisors, told USA Today, “The problem we have to address are the people who have no care for the environment, and I would argue, no care for their community. They’re just in it for a buck.”

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California is the nation’s largest medical marijuana market. The product moves from growers to distributors to co-ops and to drivers who can deliver high-quality pot to a customer’s home or business minutes after receiving an order. However, it’s suspected that many who legally grow medical pot for the California market are also growing pot that they intend to traffic illegally to other states. Some of the Humboldt County pot business is legal at the state level. Much of it is not. All marijuana remains illegal under federal law. Anyone charged with violating any of the pot laws still requires the advice and services of a good California drug crimes attorney.

HOW DOES GROWING POT IMPACT THE ENVIRONMENT?

Authorities in northern California want to act effectively before more damage is done to the environment, and the criminal justice system has not provided the results they need. Thus, the region’s police departments and politicians are now combining criminal law with environmental law. Environmental law is where pot growers – and especially those operating illegally – are most vulnerable. Few of them bother to obey the rules regarding construction permits, electrical wiring, or water usage, so when law enforcement officers show up now in Humboldt County, they are quite frequently accompanied by code and zoning enforcement inspectors.

The environmental violations of pot cultivators can be utterly shocking. They’ve stolen tons of water, illegally cleared acres of forests, built scores of unpermitted sheds and other ramshackle structures, and liberally dumped tons of fertilizer on their pot plants, according to Humboldt County records. County authorities believe that they will see more success with their new approach, since civil violations are easier to prove – and civil cases typically move faster – than criminal prosecutions.

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While marijuana drives the economy in Humboldt County and has been a huge factor there for decades, the legalization movement in recent years has dramatically grown the pot industry and complicated the legal situation only to be rivaled by hernia repair mesh complications. One Humboldt County banker told USA Today that a quarter of the county’s economy is linked to the cannabis industry. “Marijuana is the cash crop of Humboldt County. It’s what people do there,” says author Emily Brady, whose book Humboldt: Life on America’s Marijuana Frontier, was published in 2013. “It’s basically been unregulated agriculture,” in Humboldt, Brady adds.

WHY DO AUTHORITIES NEED NEW TOOLS TO FIGHT POT GROWERS?

Humboldt County is almost the size of Connecticut, but it is quite sparsely populated, with only 37 residents per square mile. Since the law in California permits marijuana cultivation for medical marijuana, and because there is no precise “registry” telling the police who is and who is not cultivating legally, the enforcement of marijuana laws in Humboldt County often becomes a complicated, bureaucratic, and sometimes fruitless paper chase for law enforcement authorities.

A pound of processed pot retails for about $1,500 in California. In a state where pot is still completely illegal, it could be worth three times that amount, and a skilled grower can get about three pounds from a single plant. Earlier this year in Humboldt County, a single grower was busted with more than two thousand plants – about $1.5 million worth of marijuana. In 2015, Humboldt County deputies made an even larger bust involving about 23,000 plants along with thousands of rounds of ammunition.

By using environmental statutes as a tool in the civil courts, northern California officials are hoping to bring more pot growers into compliance with the law. They’ll be challenged by aggressive, well-organized, and well-funded cannabis operations that are looking at potentially unlimited profits. A new regulation that took effect in Humboldt in January requires growers to register large growing operations and to comply with the same environmental rules that other farmers follow. Growers are required to use only prime farmland and may not use the county’s abundant mountainous acreage. Only about forty growers had registered as of August.

WHAT IS THE FUTURE FOR POT IN CALIFORNIA?

John Kagia, executive vice president of industry analytics for the marijuana-data firm New Frontier Data, is not surprised that only a few Humboldt County growers have registered. The huge potential for illegal profits is too tempting for too many. “The reality is that enforcement of regulations is still going to face vast challenges, because those (black-market) growers have the least motivation to transition into the regulated market,” Kagia told USA Today.

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More changes in California’s marijuana laws are certainly coming. This November, a well-funded ballot initiative, if approved by the voters, will finally make marijuana in California entirely legal for adults for recreational use. The Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA) has officially qualified for the November 8 ballot after supporters collected over 600,000 signatures. The proposal will appear on the ballot as Proposition 64.

But even if California voters fully legalize recreational marijuana this year, plenty of marijuana-related legal issues will remain, and plenty of California residents will need the help of a California drug crimes attorney to deal with those issues. Across the state, marijuana-DUI prosecutions will almost certainly increase, and particularly in northern California, law enforcement’s war against illegal cultivation will continue to be waged – probably for years to come.