In news that Smokey Bear, iconic protector of all forests, would be happy to hear, research shows that reports of illegal marijuana grow operations on federally protected lands fell after states began legalizing it for adult use.
“Arguably,” the study authors wrote, “our models hint that outright, national recreational cannabis legalization would be one means by which illegal growing on national forests could be made to disappear. We find that recreational cannabis legalization is associated with decreased reports of illegal grow operations on national forests.”
The research, which was published in the journal Ecological Economics in July 2019, is thought to be the first of its kind to analyze the effects of legalization policies on illegal outdoor grows in national forests throughout the United States. A separate recent study found that cannabis cultivation on federal lands specifically in the Pacific Northwest declined after legalization.
Researchers with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)'s Forest Service used existing data on the number of illegal grow sites reported between 2004 and 2016 in 111 national forests. In addition to incorporating other variables into their analysis — including state marijuana policies, retail price for consumers, risk of exposure and others —, they also came up with six simulated scenarios with policy changes to create random effects models of the number of reported grows.
For example, in one scenario, the study's authors estimated how many illegal grow sites would exist if current laws legalizing both recreational and medical marijuana were revoked. In another simulation, wholesale and retail sales taxes on legal marijuana were eliminated in states that had already approved the sale and consumption of cannabis in 2016.
According to the study's findings, “policies legalizing recreational cannabis production and consumption are associated with significantly lower numbers of reported illegal grows on national forests.”
The study's predictive models showed that eliminating current state laws legalizing access to marijuana would result in “double-digit percentage increases in reported grows on national forests, while further expansion of the set of states with such laws passed by statewide referenda in 2016 (but only instituting applicable laws in 2017 or later, post-dating our dataset) would be expected to reduce growing on national forests by a fifth or more.”
If all 23 states that had approved medical marijuana by 2016 moved to more broadly legalize for adult use, the study continues, illegal cultivation sites in national forests would decline anywhere from 35% to 51%. However, it concluded that legalization of medical cannabis across the U.S. alone would not affect grow operations in national forests.
Mere decriminalization of possession was also found to have no significant effect on the number of illegal farms, though models showed that harsher penalties for illegal production and possession of marijuana, as well as stricter regulations on CBD oil and similar products, did have an effect. Meanwhile, an increase in law enforcement presence only made a slight difference (a 2.5% decrease in reported illegal grows) if local agencies increased their manpower by 20%.
Another issue, of course, is the role of taxes. If states reduced how much they tax legal sales by 6 to 13%, the number of illegal grows would decline. As researchers point out, “availability of legal cannabis does not encourage illegal cultivation unless the after-tax price for legal cannabis is substantially elevated relative to the illegal product.”
“As a practical matter,” the study authors summarize, “the number of cannabis grows on national forests could be reduced in two opposite ways: (1) legalization, or (2) increased efforts to deter, incarcerate, and otherwise discourage participation in the illegal market. Redefining what is legal perhaps would yield reductions that are cost less for the Forest Service, at least in the narrow sense of cannabis law enforcement demands, and would reduce the damages associated with cannabis cultivation.”
Ecologists have raised concerns about the environmental impact illegal marijuana cultivation sites have on national forests, such as the use of highly toxic rodenticide to ward off pests.
Feature image: Wildfire prevention icon Smokey Bear stands by a fire hazard sign. A study published in Ecological Economics in July 2019 found that marijuana legalization led to a decline in cannabis grown illegally on federal lands. (Photo by Evan Wise on Unsplash)
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