Environmental Armageddon in Cannabis Country

“An ideological descendant of the Gold Rush, the green rush serves as yet another get-rich-quick fantasy founded on the erasure of Native People …aptly named the green rush, this surge in cannabis production evokes gold-rush era ideology of manifest destiny, resource extraction, and wealth accumulation.”  –Dr. Kaitlin Reed (p.123)

Dr. Kaitlin Reed, a Yurok woman scholar, professor of Native American studies at Cal Poly Humboldt, and investigative, courageous writer, shatters the illusory “green idyll” mythology hiding behind the Redwood Curtain in the cannabis-laden watersheds of Northern California. In her iconic new book, “Settler Cannabis,” Reed reveals a 40-year ecological assault upon the stricken ecosystems of the North Coast perpetrated first, tragically, by the back-to-the- land, cannabis-cultivating new settlers of the Emerald Triangle. It all began with these migrating city kids, who came north in the 70’s and 80’s.  It was this last group of mostly white settlers, like gold, fish, and timber pioneer resource seekers before them, who committed environmental crimes related to for-profit resource extraction of the cannabis plant. Thus these new settlers on the land, after seedless cannabis cultivation (“sinsemilla,”) was discovered, made the cannabis industry a continuation of what Reed calls “colonial land dispossession.”  Rampant building of infrastructures for water diversion, and land clearing, became the unspoken legacy of back-to-the-land.

Dr.Reed’s work is groundbreaking, in the tradition of academic historians preceding her, like Howard Zinn. Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States,” and Reed’s  “Settler Cannabis,” both expose the state-sanctioned genocide of New World People and Native Americans.      

Exploitative cannabis cultivation in the Emerald Triangle was begun by the new hippie settlers, and then joined in by local ranchers and loggers who had huge swaths of land easily converted into cannabis plantations. Together these two groups of seemingly opposing political views (“hipnecks”), Joined forces to make” not just a living, but a killing.” This cauldron of white privilege, greed, and racism boiled into a frenzied cannabis economy. BigPot became the legal cannabis corporate farming of today.      Back-to-the-landers, and their redneck neighbors, began re-living the stigma of Manifest Destiny once again on the North Coast of California.  It is a tradition of natural resource poaching from forests and rivers going back some 170 years.   

“To escape the capitalist culture of urban centers, primarily white young people began to flock to rural areas they considered “empty’—which in truth was a reenactment of settler colonial land dispossession—predicated on the false idea of terra nullius and wilderness.”—Dr. Reed

The Indigenous Foundation defines “tera nullius,” as the doctrine of” taking empty lands not occupied by Christians.” Hippie Settlers bought logged-over land on the cheap from dubious white ranch owners who had deforested pristine lands during the timber boom. By converting said lands into cannabis farms, back-to-the-landers were justifying the ancient terra nullius law.  In her northwestern Northern California home, Yurok tribal member Reed documents resource rushing by white settlers— “first gold, then timber, then fish, now cannabis.”  

In Chapter 4, a colleague of Dr. Reed’s asks a profound question: “Back-to-the-land—whose land?”  Hippie homesteaders, fueled by the lucrative cash cow that high-grade cannabis became, were unknowingly welcoming in the inevitable destructive Green Rush. Excessive water diversions leading to Steelhead and Salmon die-offs, removal of Douglas Fir and madrone trees to open up sun canopies for growing plants, and fertilizer regimens using water soluble nitrates that leached into waterways, causing toxic algae blooms, were prevalent land use disasters. Punching and grating in new roads discharged sediment into the Klamath and Eel Rivers. Some people used anticoagulant poisons to control rats that eat freshly planted cannabis starts. This material takes a long time to degrade in the natural environment, and is often eaten by native wildlife. How can this be an honorable legacy for a group of people claiming to be good stewards of the land?

Kaitlin Reed wants to protect her Yurok homelands. She helps the Yurok tribe collect data on every destructive type of cannabis cultivation occurring on Reservation lands over time:  outdoor, guerilla trespass grows, mixed-light operations by legal operators violating the sacred dark skies with artificial light, and buildings camouflaged into the bush housing noisy generators powering high-intensity grow lights producing the coveted indoor, high- THC cannabis plants. 

Reed worked on clean-up crews for the Yurok Nation during the years of deadly summer droughts when cannabis cultivators dewatered local streams, and caused warming water in the Klamath River that led to thousands of salmon perishing. Cannabis pirates took so much water in those years, primitive water systems used by local tribal memories for household use dried up.  Reed calls this “extractive violence” weaponized against the Yurok people.

There are really only two books written about the cannabis industry in the Emerald Triangle that have any journalistic credibility, and Reed quotes from them extensively Ray Raphael’s “Cash Crop” talks about the early days of cannabis cultivation in the 1980’s. He is a local Southern Humboldt resident, and the literary voice of back-to-the-land. Brady’s book,” Humboldt: Life on America’s Frontier,” on the other hand, is more of a Green Rush history. Brady, who is from the East Coast, published hers in 2013, right at the cusp of cannabis legalization. She only lived in Humboldt while she was researching the book. 

While Kaitlin Reed finds these two books to be useful portrayals of the early back-to-the land lifestyle, and ensuing Green Rush, she does not shy away from criticism. Raphael, in” Cash Crop,” seeks to make a biased distinction between the “good growers” of his time, and the “bad growers,” who migrated to Humboldt later via the Green Rush. Raphael lived among the early back-to-the land settlers who sold the first 5,000 dollar pounds of green bud. This is when all the water diversion threatening native salmon really began. “Cash Crop” also exposes the militaristic cannabis eradication program run by the federal government that served as a price support. CAMP kept cannabis prices high for many years. In turn, Brady sensationalizes the back-to-the land movement morphing into the Green Rush as “one of America’s last pioneer movements.” This nostalgic nonsense legitimizes environmental crimes that both movements fostered. Green Rushers and back-to-the landers are and were selfish resource extractors succumbing to the deadly sin of greed.  

In the end, cannabis cultivation is all about the egregious use of water. Dr. Reed notes that it is now universally accepted in the environmental science community that cannabis is a water-intensive plant.  Thirsty cannabis consumes up to 6 gallons of water per day for each plant  during the hot summer growing season. The author cites the research of Mourad Gabriel.  In 2016 Gabriel estimated that 500.000 cannabis plants on public lands in Northern California used 6000 million gallons of water. Reed notes, disturbingly, that this is the same amount of water consumed by the city of San Francisco in one month


The trail to the pot patch winded through the Greenwood. Down, down, deep into the canyon Old Hippie traversed.  Soon he was concealed by skydancing Douglas Firs. At last he entered a small dell. Yonder Old Hippie could hear the sweet sound of gurgling water. Walking to the spring source, Old Hippie found his black polyurethane pipe intact. The opening to the one inch plastic pipe, nestled neatly just below the sandy water line of the gentle brook, was still pressurized, sucking water smoothly. This mountain spring ran all year, with clean water sifted by rock. Springs like this were a treasure for Emerald Triangle cannabis growers like Old Hippie.  He was full of himself, back in 1993, as he walked his line to check the emitters dripping the stolen life-giving water into his six 15-gallon plastic pots. Each pot housed a one-quarter pound female cannabis plant, worth 1000 dollars apiece once he got the manicured bud nuggets to the college town of Arcata after harvest.  Suddenly a green Huey helicopter roared above the ridge, surveilling for illicit cannabis plants. Old Hippie wasn’t worried, though. Clueless federal agents would never find him way down here.  They were after the plantation growers.  Government-funded Big Birds in the sky were why the price of a fresh pound was 4000 dollars.

Old Hippie’s buried black plastic pipes are still there, in his beloved spring. Utility black polyurethane water lines can be found anywhere in Humboldt County. Hike into the woods near water sources, and you will find them. Dr. Reed pulled out thousands of plastic irrigation pipes left on her ancestral lands.  She calls them “black snakes.”:

“Prophecy told of Zuzeca Sapa, the Black Snake, extending itself across the land and imperiling all life, beginning with the water.” (from the Preface, by Kaitlin Reed)

Old Hippie knows now that his “green idyll” turned into the “false idyll” of the cannabis green rush. When the money was rolling in, before the crash, smug growers in Humboldt County used to brag, “it’s just another day in Paradise.” Large-scale cannabis production, as “Settler Cannabis” illustrates, actually turned out to be “Armageddon in Paradise.”

Settler Cannabis: From Gold Rush to Green Rush In indigenous Northern California
By Dr. Kaitlin Reed
240 pages
University of Washington Press, 2023
ISBN 9780295751566

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