The Future of California Cannabis Depends on Rain
Water in California is a notoriously hot commodity. As a state that’s spent more time in a drought than out of it during the past five years, legalizing a new, water-intensive agricultural crop—especially when that crop has the historical baggage that cannabis does—is a complicated process.
Done carelessly, cannabis grows can have profoundly negative impacts on nature, polluting waterways with pesticides and clearing trees and shrubs that help support a healthy ecosystem. This is especially true of illegal cultivation, which has bled into national forests and other protected land in recent years.
On the flipside, when done thoughtfully, cannabis uses a lot less water than California’s other agricultural staples, such as almonds, said Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the California Growers Association—and it offers a considerably higher profit margin.
“We’ve got a [water]crisis on our hands in California, and it’s much bigger than cannabis,” Allen said.
In an effort to balance environmental concerns with marijuana’s projected $7 billion market, California is ushering in a bevy of rules and regulations related to water use. In June, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a cannabis omnibus bill that, among other things, sets standards for organic marijuana and establishes environmental protections.
The bill, SB 94, includes a provision that allows regulators to restrict cannabis cultivation if they determine it’s causing environmental harm. Specifically, it bars the Department of Fish and Wildlife “from issuing new cannabis licenses or increasing the total number of plant identifiers within a watershed or area, if the board or the Department of Food and Agriculture finds, based on substantial evidence, that cannabis cultivation is causing significant adverse impacts on the environment in a watershed or other geographic area.”
In other words, the goal is to limit cultivation to only what California’s ecosystems can support.
The clause is similar to one tucked into Proposition 64, which voters passed last year to legalize adult-use marijuana. It requires each individual cannabis plant to display a unique ID number—and it says that if a particular watershed can’t support additional cultivation, no new plant identifiers will be issued.
That means growers won’t be able to plant where there’s not enough water to support their crops—something that could spell disaster for cultivators who rely solely on water from watersheds, said Allen, a former grower who now focuses full-time on public policy.
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