Illegal cannabis grow
An illegal cannabis grow identified by the U.S. Forest Service. Image from Google Earth

It’s called the TOXIC Act, an appropriate title for combating the lethal pesticides being smuggled into the United States. The legislation, which stands for Targeting and Offsetting Existing Illegal Contaminants, has been reintroduced for this session of Congress and hearings are set for later this month.

Res. Scott Peters, a Democrat from San Diego, and Rep. Doug LaMalfa, a Republican from Oroville, authored the bill to target the smugglers who bring across the border pesticides used by Mexican cartels to maximize their profits from illegal cannabis groves — massive sites that are found throughout the park system in California and elsewhere in the West.

“Trespass cannabis cultivation,” as it is called, is a danger not just about the illegal marijuana but the potentially severe accompanying damage to the ecosystem.

A series of investigative articles in Times of San Diego revealed how Mexican cartels are using the pesticides to kill rodents that were eating the marijuana stalks, and how these poisonous pesticides, in turn, are now killing owls and other animals.

The pesticide of choice — carbofuran — is sold in Mexico under the trade names Furadan and Qufuran. According to Assistant U.S. Attorney Melanie Pierson, this pesticide is “classified by the EPA as Toxicity Category I, the highest toxicity category, based upon its lethal potency from absorption by ingestion, contact with skin, and inhalation.”

Pierson was the lead prosecutor for a task force formed in 2019 to combat the smugglers. And while 50 defendants were prosecuted for environmental crimes, smuggling nearly 1,000 containers of the illegal pesticide, the penalties were “hand-slaps,” according to one task force member.

Saul Flores Banuelos, a resident of Apple Valley, was sentenced to 60 days in custody and ordered to pay $1,200 restitution for smuggling as many as 23 liters of illegal pesticides. According to Pierson, the smugglers pay about “$10 a liter and sell it up here for somewhere from $130 to $250 for that same bottle.”

The Times of San Diego articles also detailed the work of researchers who established a link between the use of these pesticides and severe environmental damage. A recently released study adds to the growing evidence of the effect of the pesticides on the environment.

The proposed legislation addresses these issues.

“Across the West, cartels are illegally growing marijuana in the most environmentally devastating ways, and at a scale that should concern any group or governor that claims to be pro-environment,” said LaMalfa.

Peters warned that “our wildlife, habitat, and public health pay the price for the actions of illegal cannabis growers who often work with cartels. These extremely dangerous and illegal pesticides can harm endangered species like Pacific fishers and spotted owls, as well as Forest Service agents and consumers who can be severely sickened by these toxins.”

La Malfa added the “The TOXIC Act is necessary to criminalize those who harm our public land with banned chemicals and helps remedy the environmental impacts.”

The bill would raise criminal penalties for using banned pesticides in illegal groves to a maximum of 20 years in custody and $250,000 in fines. As well as providing $250 million over five years for the U.S. Forest Service to “address environmental damages caused by the release of banned pesticides”.