Nov. 1 (UPI) -- Marijuana farming in remote locations is hurting the environment, new research shows.
When researchers analyzed the ecological consequences of marijuana farming in Northern California, they were surprised by the outsized impact of small farms.
"Cannabis leaves a small spatial footprint but has potentially significant environmental impacts," Jake Brenner, associate professor of environmental science at Ithaca College, said in a news release. "To mitigate these impacts, policymakers and planners need to enact specific environmental and land-use regulations to control cannabis crop expansion during this early stage in its development."
Because marijuana farming is still in its infancy, hard data on its environmental impact are hard to come by. The latest research -- published this week in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment -- offers a blueprint for assessing the potential effects of new pot farms.
Previous studies have shown pesticide used to keep rodents from marijuana farms can harm local mammals. Irrigation can also rob local wildlife habitat of water.
In the latest study, scientists compared the environmental effects of cannabis cultivation, like habitat loss, deforestation and forest fragmentation, to those caused by timber operations.
"We found that although timber has greater landscape impacts overall, cannabis causes far greater changes in key metrics on a per-unit-area basis," said Van Butsic, researcher at the University of California, Berkeley.
While a marijuana farm is smaller than the average timber operation, its environmental impact at scale is greater. Analysis of pot farms in 62 randomly selected watersheds proved the crop caused 1.5 times more forest loss and 2.5 times greater forest fragmentation.
"The results show how important it is to consider environmental impacts at different scales," said Brenner.
Policy-making is still catching up to legalization and the growth of the marijuana industry, and the longterm impact of both farming and the industry's regulations aren't clear.
California limits marijuana cultivation to a single acre per parcel of land, but in preventing large-scale industrial pot farms, the law may be encouraging the proliferation of small farms with outsized environmental impacts. These small farms may work to breakup valuable forest and reduce wildlife habitat.
Scientists hope their latest study can inspired improved policy making so to limit the impact of marijuana farming on the environment.
"Studies like this one have the potential to directly inform local land-use policy and state environmental regulation," said Brenner. "It's exciting to be a part of this research because it is capturing a human-environment phenomenon at the moment of its emergence."