The sponsor of a bill to combat the use of banned pesticides at illegal marijuana grow sites argued at a hearing on Thursday that the legislation will protect the health of consumers—especially medical cannabis patients.
The House Natural Resources Federal Lands Subcommittee took up the bill from Reps. Scott Peters (D-CA) and Doug LaMalfa (R-CA), which was introduced earlier this month.
While the idea of yet another stepped up federal effort to crack down on illegal cannabis production might seem like an extension of prohibitionist enforcement at a surface level, the lawmakers have said that the primary intent of the Targeting and Offsetting Existing Illegal Contaminants (TOXIC) Act is consumer safety and environmental protection.
Peters said at Thursday’s hearing that “when cannabis plants are treated with illegal pesticides, the chemicals can be absorbed by the plant and ultimately end up in the consumer product.”
“Consuming cannabis that has been treated with illegal pesticides can trigger a range of negative health effects from lingering nausea and respiratory problems to acute sickness,” the congressman said. “This is particularly concerning for medical cannabis users who rely on the plant for relief from symptoms associated with various medical conditions, but may struggle to afford safe market rate cannabis at current price points.”
Advocates, industry stakeholders and regulators share a broader concern about the environmental damage associated with illicit grows, where banned pesticides are sometimes used and can damage the ecosystem by polluting water and soil and poisoning wildlife.
Subcommittee Chairman Tom Tiffany (R-WI) said that illegal cannabis grows cause “significant environmental degradation, harm to wildlife, increased crime and catastrophic wildfires.”
“The Mexican drug cartels operating these sites are causing enormous damage,” he said. “At one site alone, cleanup crews donning hazmat suits remove 3,000 pounds of waste and trash and over 1,100 pounds of fertilizer and banned pesticides. The chemicals they use are so dangerous. One teaspoon could kill a 600-pound black bear.”
U.S. Forest Service Deputy Chief for National Forest Systems Chris French said at the hearing that “illegal cannabis cultivation affects public safety and the environment, with pesticides poisoning wildlife, soil and water.” He added that the legislation provides “very appreciated” resources to his agency for remediation purposes.
In written testimony, the federal official said his agency “would like to work with the bill sponsors and subcommittee on technical changes to better define the Forest Service’s enforcement authority and the appropriate remediation activities to be undertaken.”
In terms of consumer safety, advocates have long maintained that creating regulated cannabis markets for adults and patients, where products are subject to testing and other compliance policies, can mitigate the risks of consuming contaminated products.
Peters and LaMalfa both represent California, where illicit cultivation has been an ongoing issue despite legalization.
With the majority of California’s localities banning at least some types of marijuana businesses from operating in their areas—and an expansive network of public lands where illicit growers can mask their activities—demand for illegal products persists.
LaMalfa, the Republican sponsor, is no fan of cannabis and even posted an iconic video of himself bulldozing illegal grows alongside law enforcement in California in 2021.
The TOXIC Act, which did not advance last session, is a two-tiered approach to the issue. The bill would provide up to $250 million in funding for the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) over five years to remediate areas where banned pesticides have been used as part of unsanctioned cannabis cultivation and also increase criminal penalties for people who have used those prohibited chemicals.
It would also increase criminal penalties for the use of banned pesticides for illegal marijuana grows, proposing that it be treated the same way as smuggling those pesticides, with maximum penalties of up to $250,000 in fines and up to 20 years in prison.
“The stakes are high for our environment and our health, but too often those who manage illicit grow sites receive slaps on the wrist when they’re caught,” Peters said at the hearing. “The TOXIC Act will help us restore the long-term health of our ecosystems, restrict the cross border flow of toxic contaminants, protect public health and consumers and support regulated cannabis businesses that comply with the law.”
The panel did not vote on the bill on Thursday.
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Congressional lawmakers have also sought to fund remediation efforts related to illegal marijuana grows in appropriations and defense legislation. Last year, for example, Sens. Alex Padilla (D-CA) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) proposed a defense bill amendment calling for federal, state, tribal and local collaboration to address remediation of lands damaged by illicit cannabis cultivation.
At the state level in California, officials announced in 2021 that they were soliciting concept proposals for a program aimed at helping small marijuana cultivators with environmental clean-up and restoration efforts.
Last month, the federal Fish and Wildlife Services (FWS) said that the steep costs associated with marijuana business licensing in California are contributing to illegal grow sites, where unauthorized chemicals are being used, thus endangering species of spotted owls.
California officials separately announced last month that the state is launching a first-of-its-kind grant program to support cities and counties in establishing local cannabis business licensing programs to address unmet consumer demand and help curb the illicit market.
The Department of Cannabis Control’s (DCC) Local Jurisdiction Retail Access Grant will provide $20 million in funding to localities across the state, prioritizing those where surveys show a disconnect between the availability of licensed retailers and rates of cannabis use among adults.
Last year, California lawmakers passed, and the governor signed, a bill aimed at combatting the illicit market by reducing legal growers’ costs through the elimination of the state’s cannabis cultivation tax.
Also last year, a pair of GOP congressional lawmakers asked key cabinet officials in the Biden administration to study the environmental impacts of marijuana cultivation—acknowledging both the intensive electrical demand that growing cannabis can involve as well as the role that legalization can play in setting regulations for the plant.
Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.