The emergence of cannabis agriculture frontiers as environmental threats

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On agricultural frontiers, minimal regulation and potential windfall profits drive opportunistic land use that often results in environmental damage. Cannabis, an increasingly decriminalized agricultural commodity in many places throughout the world, may now be creating new agricultural frontiers. We examined how cannabis frontiers have boomed in northern California, one of the United States' leading production areas. From 2012-2016 cannabis farms increased in number by 58%, cannabis plants increased by 183%, and the total area under cultivation increased by 91%. Growth in number of sites (80%), as well as in site size (56% per site) contributed to the observed expansion. Cannabis expansion took place in areas of high environmental sensitivity, including 80%-116% increases in cultivation sites near high-quality habitat for threatened and endangered salmonid fish species. Production increased by 40% on steep slopes, sites more than doubled near public lands, and increased by 44% in remote locations far from paved roads. Cannabis farm abandonment was modest, and driven primarily by farm size, not location within sensitive environments. To address policy and institutions for environmental protection, we examined state budget allocations for cannabis regulatory programs. These increased six-fold between 2012-2016 but remained very low relative to other regulatory programs. Production may expand on frontiers elsewhere in the world, and our results warn that without careful policy and institutional development these frontiers may pose environmental threats, even in locations with otherwise robust environmental laws and regulatory institutions.

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Environmental Research Letters

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