Courtesy of Medical Cannabis News
Courtesy of Medical Cannabis News
Courtesy of Medical Cannabis News

On Dec. 4, 2013, I attended “Civic Cocktail,” a monthly public interest program put on by Seattle cable Channel 21 sponsored by the Seattle City Club. The topic was “Cannabis and Culture,” and the featured guests were two of the most significant, if not the most significant, catalysts for passing Washington State Initiative 502: ACLU lawyer Alison Holcomb and City Attorney Pete Holmes. They fielded questions from assembled journalists ranging from I-502 implementation to how Seattle cannabis journalist Ben Livingston has managed to put together a one-year anniversary celebration of I-502’s passage in the Seattle Center right next to the Experience Music Project.

Why Geography Matters In Washington and California

One of the last questions was posed by Seattle Post-Intelligencer columnist Joel Connelly, and it was provoked by contemporary media focus on environmental damage from cannabis agriculture in California. He was worried that I-502 in rural areas might also lead to guerrilla grows and environmental impacts on watersheds, especially in Okanogan County. It was a bit of a curveball for the urban-focused guests, so I stepped in to respond when the audience was permitted.

My basic points were as follows:

  • California’s environmental issues are particular to the historical geography of cannabis, not the result of some inherent environment-damaging gene in the plant itself. They are also shaped by the development of other rural industries, especially the wine industry. And they are shaped most of all by the political economy of water in our most productive agricultural state.
  • Okanogan County, to be fair to Joel, is Washington’s version of Humboldt County and the herb-basket of outdoor hippie production in Washington state. It’s the site of a robust annual countercultural/Harvest festival, Barter Faire, and its community leaders have a history of not only helicopters but environmental activism around especially issues of corporate mining. But unlike Humboldt County, it serves second fiddle to King County in terms of state cannabis production. Most of the Okanogan product goes to Spokane, the urban capital of Eastern Washington, and other rural areas.
  • Finally, I-502 covers legal cannabis agriculture, and there is no evidence that “underground” cannabis growers are flocking to centers of legal production. Okanogan has a great deal of organizational energy devoted to shifting from illicit and medical production to white market production, and that organizational energy is being led by some of the strongest rural environmental activists in the state.

What the Environmental Questions Around Cannabis Don’t Address

This is not the only time I have encountered anxiety about environmental impacts of cannabis agriculture in Washington State based on media coverage coming out of California, but it was the most public and “out of place” given the urban focus and demographic of the Civic Cocktail. My immediate concern was that Joel was essentially planting a totally ungrounded fear of rural cannabis production in the urban demographic, based on the correlation of “Cannabis” and “Environmental Impacts” in the media.

This is dangerous because it could lead voters to support policies that restrict rural legal cannabis production in a state that will be transitioning from primarily urban, indoor production to environmentally and economically more friendly rural production. If Joel Connelly is thinking and talking about it, many of his readers are, too.

While all of this may seem rather obvious to anyone familiar with cannabis agriculture, it’s an important reminder of the lesson that geography matters, on the one hand, and the need for basic geographically literacy around cannabis agriculture as this crazy quilt of legal/medical/illegal cannabis policy proliferates around the country on the other.

by Dominic Corva

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Dominic is a political geographer and public policy scholar. He serves as executive director of the Center for the Study of Cannabis and Social Policy in Washington state and an Affiliate Researcher for the Humboldt Institute for Interdisciplinary Marijuana Research at Humboldt State University, California. At the University of Washington, he created the “Reefer Madness” course that explores cannabis’s effect on culture and policy. His dissertation research examined the political economy of international drug policy in the Western Hemisphere, and his postdoctoral research has focused on the political economy of cannabis agriculture in Southern Humboldt County.


  1. The main point to get across is that the environmental, social and criminal problems that we keep hearing about occur in and are caused by the black market and prohibition, not the legalized and regulated white market. Most reporters–out of ignorance or intentional hostility–routinely commingle any facts that they can find about cannabis, leading to confusion or the perpetuation of stereotypes.

    California’s rural black market pot industry is not Washington’s hyper-regulated white market and an illegal residential hash lab explosion in Colorado has nothing to do with legal pot shops who get their product from legal, regulated grows—yet one might find bits of all of this in the same story.

    It is *only* in the legal market that regulation can address and correct the problems created by greed in the unregulated, illegal black market. The answer is always more legalization, not less.

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