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Bluebird Botanicals Colorado National Forest

While the specific locations of the growing operations may be covert, it’s no secret that illicit cannabis grow operations are peppered throughout the great American landscape - including within our national forests. Thankfully, largely in part to the rise of legal cannabis, that’s starting to change.

However, it isn’t changing all that quickly. As recently as last year, experts still estimated that legal sales accounted for just about $10 billion in total cannabis sales for the year - which sings a much more profitable song to the tune of $50 billion.

So, with legal cannabis still only accounting for about a fifth of the total industry profit (legal and illicit combined), what impact is the budding hemp, CBD, and legal cannabis industry having? Join us as we evaluate the state of the black-market cannabis grow operations, and how legalizing hemp is helping our national forests. 

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The Illicit Cannabis Landscape

Given the lengthy history of hemp’s prohibition, it’s really no surprise that the profitable wonder crop called cannabis has a foothold in the illicit growing arena. Unauthorized grows have predominantly focused on the cultivation of recreational cannabis as opposed to hemp. However, the demand for this low-THC crop has remained high enough to make black-market cannabis grow operations not only financially sustainable but also pretty dang lucrative. 

What This Means for National Forests

Bluebird Botanicals National Forest Sign

Oregon, Colorado, and California bear the biggest burden when it comes to hosting hidden cannabis grows in the depths of national forests. These states have the highest percentage of national forest land, with Oregon boasting 24%, Colorado at 21%, and California at 20%. 

These unlawful cannabis growing operations in national forests across the U.S. can have severe impacts. Improper disposal of material waste, polluted and diverted waterways, and the use of harsh, toxic chemicals by these illicit cannabis grows creates a significant imbalance in the ecosystem, killing fish and other wildlife. It isn’t uncommon to find animal carcasses as well as human and animal waste surrounding these sites. 

How Hemp is Helping

The presence of illicit grow operations in national forests across the U.S. has been both environmentally detrimental and incredibly difficult to curtail. This is in part due to the fact that taxes impact the business’ bottom line as well as the market price of legal cannabis products. As long as illicit operations continue to be more affordable and more profitable, they’ll continue to flourish. However, legal hemp is making an impact. And experts believe it’s a more powerful one than seizures by law enforcement.

The 2018 Farm Bill made hemp legal for the first time in over 40 years. This bill has paved the way for legal hemp, CBD, and other cannabis companies to gain a foothold in the U.S. economy. And this shift is making a difference for our national forests. 

A recent study published in Volume 164 of Ecological Economics noted that legalizing recreational cannabis has significantly impeded black-market growing operations on these lands. Likewise, a manufactured simulation legalizing cannabis across all of the U.S. approximates that unauthorized grows would diminish by double-digit percentages as a result, with most of that coming from California. The study hypothesizes that this approach could eventually eliminate national forest grows entirely. 

To adhere to due diligence, researchers involved in this study also examined what would be expected with an increase in law enforcement presence. An increase in law enforcement budgets and numbers of officers did have an impact on reducing clandestine cannabis grows. However, the return on investment was not so high: doubling both these numbers would result in at most a 10% decrease in illicit grows. 

All this is to say - hemp, hemp, hooray! Hemp, which has proven its value countless times over, now has another benefit to tout: wilderness preservation.

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