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A fully budded marijuana plant ready for trimming is seen at the Botanacare marijuana store ahead of their grand opening on New Year A fully budded marijuana plant ready for trimming is seen at the Botanacare marijuana store ahead of their grand opening on New Year's day in Northglenn, Colorado Dec. 31, 2013. (REUTERS/Rick Wilking)  

Feds to crack down on pot farms on public lands over environmental concerns

The U.S. Sentencing Commission is getting tougher on high-level marijuana growers who operate on public and private lands over concerns that such operations are harming the environment and wildlife.

The Commission is amending its sentencing guidelines because high-level marijuana operations spread “chemicals like herbicides, pesticides, and rodenticides which can cause damage to land, enter the water table, and poison wildlife,” said Commission chair Patti Saris last week.

Harsher penalties for pot farmers illegally growing on public lands were pushed by California’s congressional delegation last fall. The state’s particularly harsh drought has also stoked worries that illegal marijuana cultivation on public lands is diverting water away from other industries, like agriculture.

“From the use of highly-toxic and illegal pesticides and rodenticides, to the violence perpetuated by drug trafficking organizations, trespass marijuana cultivation makes our public and private lands unsafe for all of us,” said California Democratic Rep. Jared Huffman.

“California is in the midst of a devastating drought, and many of these grow operations illegally divert streams and tap groundwater with untold impacts on downstream water users and wildlife,” Huffman added.

The Commission’s amendments will be sent to Congress for six months and then take effect at the beginning of November 2014.

The U.S. sets aside large amounts of land every year for conservation to protect the environment, but drug traffickers have been taking advantage of off-limits land to “green” it up with pot farms. Pot growers can set up large-scale operations on federal land, sometimes growing more than 200,000 per site.

“The United States has an abundance of public lands set aside by Congress for conservation, recreational use, and enjoyment of the citizens of this country and visitors from around the globe,” according to the White House. “Unfortunately, criminal organizations are exploiting some of our most pristine public and tribal lands as grow sites for marijuana.”

The White House says that 43 percent of the 3.6 million marijuana plants destroyed in 2012 were from public and tribal lands. Government data shows that nearly 83 percent of the eradicated from National Forest Service lands were located in California.

The harsher penalties for large-scale growers on public and private lands comes as the U.S. Sentencing Commission recommended reduced sentencing guidelines that could cut prison stays for 70 percent of drug trafficking defendants.

“This modest reduction in drug penalties is an important step toward reducing the problem of prison overcrowding at the federal level in a proportionate and fair manner,” said Saris. “Reducing the federal prison population has become urgent, with that population almost three times where it was in 1991.”

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