Steve Dipaola/Reuters/File
Buds are removed from a container at the "Oregon's Finest" medical marijuana dispensary in Portland, Ore. in this file photo taken April 8, 2014. The Utah Senate decided Tuesday to send a bill that legalizes medical marijuana in the state to a final vote. If passed, the legislation would make Utah the 24th state to allow such a law.

Stoned rabbits? DEA agent says medical marijuana endangers bunnies

Could wildlife be an unintended casualty of legalizing medical marijuana? In Utah, one DEA agent argues that weed farms are bad for rabbits, and other animals. 

Save the rabbits; say no to medical marijuana?

That appears to be part of the US Drug Enforcement Administration’s latest argument against medical marijuana as the agency tries to stop passage of a Utah bill that would legalize the plant’s use for specific kinds of illnesses.

“I come to represent the actual science and I come with some severe concerns,” special agent Matt Fairbanks, a member of the DEA’s marijuana eradication team in Utah, told a state Senate panel Monday.

Mr. Fairbanks raised the issue of the environmental impact of large-scale marijuana cultivation, saying that in his years clearing backcountry Utah of illegal weed farms he had seen “entire mountains subjected to pesticides, harmful chemicals, deforestation and erosion.”

At illegal grow sites, he said, his team saw “even rabbits that had cultivated a taste for the marijuana, where one of them refused to leave us.” Even after Fairbanks and his group cleared the space of weed, the rabbit’s “natural instincts to run were somehow gone,” he added.

Illegal pot farming can harm the environment. In 2012, the US Forest Service documented more than 300,000 feet of plastic hose, about 19,000 pounds of fertilizer, and 180,000 pounds of trash on more than 300 illegal marijuana plantations throughout California’s public forests, High Country News reported.

But the same article noted that all “trespass grow” sites – regardless of the crop – can have a negative environmental impact.

“It’s not so much a political issue as it is just trying to preserve public lands,” Rick Fleming, director of the High Sierra Volunteer Trail Crew and a trespass grow cleanup partner in the region, told the magazine.

As for the danger that pot poses to rabbits, Fairbanks has an ally in the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA): Marijuana can be bad for pets, and can lead to effects no conscientious owner would want to see in a pet.

And there have been reports of wildlife that appear to have developed a taste for the stuff, such as Oregon’s “marijuana-munching deer,” known as Sugar Bob.  

The Utah panel, however, was not fully convinced of the dangers cited: After the two-hour discussion that included Fairbanks’ testimony, the committee voted 3-2 to send the bill to the full Senate, The Associated Press reported. On Tuesday night, the lawmakers decided to send the bill to a final vote, according to The Salt Lake Tribune

If passed, the law would make the state the 24th in the US to legalize medical marijuana.

The Utah law only allows businesses to grow marijuana and sell pot-infused products to people with debilitating and chronic illnesses; smoking it would still be illegal.

Some who oppose the bill, such as state Sen. Allen Christensen (R) of North Ogden told the Tribune that legalizing weed would be problematic, even if "some might get relief from being high on marijuana."

"It's just too great [a risk to the state] for me to consider it,” he added.

Sen. Mark Madsen (R) of Saratoga Springs, who sponsored the bill, told the AP that pushing past the propaganda and misunderstanding surrounding medical marijuana could help ease the suffering of a lot of people. Mr. Madsen began studying the issue after experiencing back pain for years.

"This bill introduces a very small element of highly regulated freedom to willing patients and willing doctors," he said.

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