THE BLOG
10/24/2013 11:48 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Gone to Pot

The old expression about everything being bigger in Texas just got trumped by what's happening in California. In my career as a reporter, I've been on more than a few drug raids and seen my fair share of marijuana plants. But nothing prepared me for what's growing in northern California. As Mendocino Sheriff Tom Allman describes them, they're "super-mega-steroid marijuana plants. We followed Sheriff Allman along on a raid near Ukiah where deputies had just discovered more than a hundred plants the size of giant Christmas trees, some reaching 15 feet high. It's the latest trend in pot farms, or what are increasingly looking like pot plantations! So how'd they get so big? Sheriff Allman says it's a combination of genetic modification, fertilizers, pesticides, California's ideal growing climate and water, lots of water.

While the super plants we found in an illegal growing operation were in Mendocino County, they're popping up all over the state, and much of the time on public land where illegal large-scale cultivation of marijuana is destroying local ecosystems. And, increasingly, it's not locals who are farming the pot plants. Allman told me that Latin American, even European syndicates, have moved in to the back woods where they are growing far from prying eyes. This is a multi-billion dollar business and those who I spoke to used words like "crisis" and "out of control" to describe what's going on here. Think about this -- illegal marijuana farms in northern California are actually sucking the mighty Eel River dry, and that's threatening the native salmon population.

Big time marijuana operations are the subject of our latest investigation for Dan Rather Reports on AXS TV. While the diversion of water from rivers is a big concern, the use of toxic pesticides -- some banned long ago in the U.S. -- to keep anything and everything away from crops is also troubling. These pesticides are poisoning wildlife and contaminating the water supply. We also discovered that these chemicals show up in marijuana that's not only headed for the black market, but in supplies due to be sold in California's medical dispensaries.

When you start looking at all these concerns over the environment and the health of individuals smoking pot, it's hard not to think that whatever we're doing to control this drug is simply not working.

Unlike other agriculture, there is no crop insurance for marijuana growers. That means that many farmers will use any means necessary to guarantee a return on their investment -- even when it means spraying harmful chemicals or draining a creek dry that is home to endangered fish. This needs to change.

More teenagers today are turning to pot than cigarettes. As societal attitudes towards marijuana have shifted -- 20 states plus the District of Columbia have made medical marijuana legal -- we must move beyond debates on whether or not it should be legal. It is time we start discussing how we can guarantee that marijuana is not destroying the environment or poisoning the people who smoke it.

Dan Rather is anchor and managing editor of AXS TV's Dan Rather Reports (Mondays, 8 p.m. ET on AXS TV). For more, visit Dan Rather Reports, Dan Rather's Official website, Dan Rather Reports on Facebook and Dan Rather Reports on Twitter. This episode is also available on iTunes.