Conversations about the effects of legalizing cannabis frequently focus on a few key issues: economic opportunity, social justice, the potential for new medical treatments, and other health benefits. What’s less talked about, however, is how cannabis legalization impacts the environment. Researchers have long documented the ways unchecked outdoor cannabis cultivation can strain resources and negatively impact the environment. And data from the U.S. Department of Justice shows that a significant amount of illegally produced cannabis is grown on federal lands— especially, national forests.

But what if legalization was making a difference? That’s exactly the question a new, first-of-its-kind study set out to answer. Do cannabis-related policies have any effect on illicit grow operations in U.S. national forests? The answer appears to be that yes, legalization does impact illegal grows. In fact, it reduces them significantly.

Expanding Legalization Reduces Illicit Grows in National Forests by a Fifth or More, Study Concludes

As the legal cannabis industry in the United States expands, demand for cannabis products is growing with it. But in the U.S. market, supply and demand have yet to find their equilibrium. So despite the major changes in the production and consumption of legal cannabis over the past decade, the unregulated, illicit market still dominates. As recently as 2018, experts estimated that legal sales accounted for over $10 billion of the $50 billion in total cannabis sales that year. Put simply, the illicit marijuana market isn’t going anywhere, at least in the short term.

Of course, supplying that market requires a significant number of illicit grow operations. And based on data about law enforcement seizures of outdoor-grown plants, national forests appear to be prime real estate for unlicensed cultivators. Illicit grows in Oregon, Colorado and California feed the bulk of the illegal market’s supply. National forests cover 24 percent of land in Oregon and 21 percent in Colorado. California has more national forests, 20, than any other state. Not coincidentally, illicit grows are highly prevalent in national forests in those states (and other legal cannabis states) despite their shifts toward regulated commercial production.


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