Marijuana Growth on Public Land Major Problem in Utah

Marijuana Growth on Public Land Major Problem in Utah

Utah has the third-largest percentage of public versus private land of all the U.S. states, trailing only Alaska and Nevada. In addition, much of this public land is actively used for recreation. All of this public land helps to make Utah a beautiful and exciting place to visit, but it has also attracted certain kinds of illegal activity. This state is not only a magnet for huge numbers of tourists each year, but also a magnet for illegal marijuana growers.

According to a press release from the office of U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), federal drug enforcement agents have seized hundreds of thousands of illegally grown marijuana plants on Utah public land in recent years, particularly in southern Utah. Hatch is co-sponsoring a bill that would increase the penalties for cultivating marijuana on public land and would also provide funds to help address the environmental impact of illegal marijuana grows.

Environmental Damage, Public Safety Are Major Concerns

Large-scale marijuana grows use and pollute valuable water resources in addition to leading to the clear-cutting of trees. Pesticides used to protect marijuana plants can harm an area’s natural ecology, and clear-cutting can cause erosion and even landslides.

Frequently, growers with ties to international drug traffickers will take advantage of remote wilderness areas that have been set aside for public preservation. Public lands offer remoteness and minimal law enforcement presence, making it possible for growers to cultivate marijuana on a scale that would be difficult to achieve on private lands.

Many people have public safety concerns in addition to environmental concerns when it comes to illegal marijuana cultivation. While reports of encounters between members of the public and marijuana growers are rare, they do happen, as in 2010 when two hikers were held at gunpoint before being rescued.

Impact of Marijuana Legalization

Recent developments in and around Utah have some people concerned that the amount of Utah land being used to grow marijuana could increase despite legislative efforts. The neighboring state of Colorado legalized recreational marijuana in 2014, but it is unclear whether this has helped to increase or decrease the amount of illegally grown marijuana that is sold in the state.

Utah itself was recently considering a bill that would legalize edible medical marijuana for patients with certain illnesses. A Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) official made headlines in March 2015 with his testimony before a Utah Senate panel. The agent warned that marijuana grow sites would increase if medical marijuana were legalized, and that the environmental consequences would include, among other things, stoned rabbits and other wildlife. Ultimately, the bill failed to pass the Senate by one vote and its sponsor has vowed to reintroduce the legislation.

Convictions for Marijuana Possession on Public Lands

In Utah, public land and marijuana also intersect in a different way. The state leads the nation in the number of people convicted for cannabis possession on public lands; in fact, it is responsible for about one-third of all such convictions nationwide.

Cannabis users are attracted to public lands in Utah for the same reason that marijuana growers use the land. There is very little law enforcement presence in remote areas of wilderness, so people believe that they are unlikely to get caught.

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