What is the environmental impact of marijuana?

The leaves of a cultivated Vitex plant (chaste tree) have smooth edges;  otherwise they resemble marijuana leaves. [Photo courtesy Whit Gibbons]

Q. Marijuana is being accepted as a legitimate medical treatment in more and more parts of the United States. Even its use as a recreational drug has been legalized in many areas. From an ecological standpoint, does the production of marijuana as an agricultural crop cause environmental damage?

A. Marijuana (aka cannabis), native to Asia and in the same family as hackberry trees, is an enigmatic plant. A complex assortment of laws and regulations, nationwide and internationally, surround marijuana. Canada allows cannabis use in any fashion. All but six US states allow some level of medicinal use of the plant. Almost half the states allow full use for any purpose. Only four states (Idaho, Wyoming, Kansas and South Carolina) still decree that any use of marijuana, even for medicinal purposes, is fully illegal.

Except for a few holdouts, states from coast to coast are beginning to embrace marijuana as an acceptable form of pain reliever and as a recreational drug. Its recorded use by humans dates back more than 2,000 years. Current consumer demand ensures that the crop will continue to be grown at agricultural levels. Tax codes and other legislation concerning marijuana as a commercial crop vary significantly from state to state. Cannabis is grown (legally and illegally) everywhere in the world except the Arctic and, as always, the Antarctic.

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Land use practices that promote growing any plant as a monoculture on a commercial scale inevitably lead to the demise of some local native species. It’s a basic ecological principle that plants compete with each other for space and resources. When humans are involved in ensuring the welfare of a marketable species, wild plants will eventually be reduced in numbers and perhaps even eliminated entirely. The loss of such native plants means the animals, including insects, that depend on them will also decline in numbers.

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