Marijuana on Public Lands: A Short History

Nick Johnson is a historian based in Longmont, Colorado. He holds a master’s degree in American History from Colorado State University and is the author of Grass Roots: A History of Cannabis in the American West(Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2017). Nick will be at Old Firehouse Books in Fort Collins this Friday 10/20 at 6 pm to talk about the new book, with a signing to follow.  See below for a guest blog post by Nick on the history of cannabis.


Today, illegal cannabis cultivation on public lands is one of the worst marijuana-related problems in the United States. Since the 1980s, outlaw marijuana growers have dumped millions of pounds of plastic and other trash into public forests, poisoned wildlife with pesticides and fertilizers, siphoned water from streams, clear-cut trees, and posed a threat to visitors and authorities alike with booby traps and guns.

Though it is most heavily concentrated in California, illegal marijuana growing occurs (and has occurred) on public land all over the country. Over the last several decades, state and federal law enforcement have fought public-land marijuana with varying levels of resources and intensity; yet the trend has only intensified. States such as California and Colorado have legalized marijuana, but that, too, has failed to curb the plant’s illegal growth on public lands.

Why is this? Is there any solution to the problem of pot growth on our public lands? As it often does, the past provides us with some critical perspective on this issue.


Marijuana cultivation on public lands was almost unheard of before the 1970s; most of the dope smoked by hippies and other American aficionados came from Mexico. But when US President Richard Nixon officially began the War on Drugs in the early 1970s, it became much riskier to transport large amounts of marijuana over the southern border. By the mid-1970s, under the Ford Administration, the federal government helped Mexican authorities spray Mexican marijuana crops with Paraquat, a toxic herbicide. Pot smokers in the United States became paranoid that their stash may be contaminated, and countercultural publications like Denver’s Straight Creek Journal ran numerous articles about the possibility of paraquat-laced pot.

American and Mexican authorities’ new focus on drugs at the southern border and the Paraquat scare had the effect of making domestic marijuana—long thought to be an inferior product—far more marketable. At the same time, a countercultural migration known as the back-to-the-land movement was spreading out into sparsely populated areas across the country, especially in northern California and southern Oregon. Back-to-the-landers were mostly young, well-educated, white, middle-class people seeking to simplify and purify their lives by getting back in touch with nature and living off the land. For many, marijuana use was a normal part of their social, recreational, and spiritual lives.

Back-to-the-landers soon realized that growing marijuana not only provided them with their own personal supply but also gave them a fine opportunity to make ends meet. In many places, especially northern California and southern Oregon, domestic marijuana became a cottage industry, supporting homesteads and communities and increasingly drawing back-to-the-landers away from their simple lives and into the risky but profitable arena of black-market capitalism.

Law enforcement took note of this new, increasingly profitable industry and began staging raids on growers throughout the 1970s. When Ronald Reagan won the White House in 1980, he intensified the War on Drugsacross the country, funneling federal resources to urban areas to combat crack use and into rural areas to fight marijuana growers. Authorities all over the country began arresting more growers, pushing up the price of weed and driving growers indoors or into remote spaces on public lands.

California: A Case Study

In California, a conservative state government partnered with the Reagan Administration in 1983 to create the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP), an annual cooperation between dozens of state and federal agencies to eliminate marijuana cultivation in California. Unique to California, the CAMP program remains active today, and data from its past reports offer insight into the trend of marijuana growth on public lands.

In California, marijuana grown on public lands accounted for about 30 percent or less of all pot plants seized in CAMP raids during the 1980s—roughly 400,000 plants. That percentage dropped to 11 by 1994, but then increased dramatically after 2000 (CAMP data from 1997-99 is not available). Meanwhile, the estimated price per marijuana plant ballooned from just over $2,000 in 1983 to around $4,000 by the 2000s.

Why did marijuana growing on public lands intensify after 2000? In addition to high prices, one reason was the legalization of medical marijuana in eight states between 1996 and 2000. Seven of those eight states were Western states with large tracts of public land. Using the plant’s new, semi-legal status as cover, hundreds of outlaw growers began setting up in National Forests, especially in California. By 2009, 76 percent of marijuana seized by CAMP—nearly 340,000 plants—was taken from public lands. That same year, BLM and Forest Service officials reported large-scale marijuana cultivation on public lands in Colorado, Oregon, and Idaho. In 2010, “nearly 60 percent of the outdoor marijuana plants eradicated” by federal authorities across the United States came from public and tribal lands; most of those plants were grown in California.

Increased enforcement in Mexico is likely another reason why American public lands attracted more pot growers after 2000. Mexican authorities cracked down on marijuana cultivation under President Vicente Fox (2000-06) and made record levels of drug arrests under President Felipe Calderón (2006-2012). These trends undoubtedly encouraged at least some Mexican cannabis growers to head north onto US public lands.

In the 2000s, CAMP reports increasingly included references to growers who were “Mexican Nationals” and part of “Drug Trafficking Organizations,” or “DTOs.” Although CAMP stopped short of using the word “cartel,” that did not prevent other authorities in California from assuming that violent Mexican cartels were taking over America’s public lands. But as late as 2011, it simply wasn’t clear how many public-land grows run by Mexican citizens were actually linked to DTOs, and whether those DTOs were actually linked to larger cartels.

The Solution: Legalize

Looking at this abridged history of marijuana growing on America’s public lands, two key points stand out.

First, increased enforcement has not discouraged cultivation on public lands; rather, it has only driven up and sustained the price of marijuana, which encourages larger and more irresponsible cultivation.

Second, although growing pot on public lands has had disastrous ecological effects in California, it has never quite gotten to that level in other states; even in 2015, with prohibition still driving a lucrative black market, California had twice as many grow sites on public lands as the state with the second-most, Kentucky. So really, most of the nation’s 640 million acres of public land are pot-free, despite what federal officials and mediareports would have us believe.

Still, we don’t need more situations like California’s popping up, and the forests of the Golden State desperately need a reprieve. Fortunately, the solution is staring us in the face: the United States needs to legalize marijuana. Federal officials like to hold legal-marijuana states to the fire for ongoing black-market activity, but the government’s own policy is largely to blame for that: if marijuana was regulated everywhere, there’d be no reason for outlaw growers to congregate in a few states.

Journalistsscientistsenvironmental historians, and even former forest rangers have all argued that legalization will help our public lands; the question remains whether federal agencies such as the US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management will take up the cause. After all, these agencies have plenty of other problems on which to spend their limited and dwindling resources. Marijuana—especially in the age of legalization—should not be one of them.

– Nick Johnson

Scotts Bluff National Monument Research Road Trip

This summer, the PLHC was working to wrap up a project for Scotts Bluff National Monument. Researcher and recent graduate, Poppie Gullett, has shared a bit about the project and her experience completing archival research during a summer road trip to Scotts Bluff National Monument, Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, and Legacy of the Plains Museum.

The author on a research break at "Carhenge" in Alliance, Nebraska.

The author on a research break at “Carhenge” in Alliance, Nebraska.

View from top of Scotts Bluff.

View from top of Scotts Bluff.

Image of William Henry Jackson in Egypt.

Image of William Henry Jackson in Egypt.

Looming over the arid grasslands of the Nebraska panhandle, 800-foot high Scott’s Bluff is immediately noticeable as a unique natural and cultural landmark. Once a crucial way marker for the Mormon and Oregon Trails as well as the Pony Express, the site received its status as a National Monument for its association with nineteenth-century westward migration. As you approach the dusty pink promontory and feel the sun beating down on you, you can almost imagine the wagon trains and riders that navigated the pass between the bluffs on their way west. The staff at Scott’s Bluff National Monument understand the intimate relationship between their site’s natural beauty and its fascinating human history. When it came time to remodel the exhibits in their visitor center in 2013, the monument reached out to the Public Lands History Center at CSU to help decide what stories those new exhibits would tell.

The PLHC team worked for four years putting together an information-rich ten chapter report on the Monument’s past and its significance to western US history. My goal in travelling to Scott’s Bluff was to use their photos, paintings, and documents in concert with the report develop a StoryMap and a visitor-friendly booklet for the monument to help communicate the history of the site in small chunks. As a latecomer to the project, my job out at Scott’s Bluff was to explore the archives of three museums—Legacy of the Plains Museum just down the road from the Monument, Scott’s Bluff National Monument, and Agate Fossil Beds National Monument. At each site I found totally different but fascinating primary sources. At Agate, I got to see some of pioneer artist and photographer William Henry Jackson’s paintings in person and see photos of him exploring the Nile River in Egypt. At Scott’s Bluff, I spoke with the staff to understand their goals and was able to look through photos salvaged from the flooded basement archives. And at Legacy of the Plains, I spent the morning learning about Nebraska farm “soddies” (sod houses) with their very helpful volunteers. In such a whirlwind trip, I was struck by both the uniqueness of the landscape and the region’s history. There are dozens of tales yet to be told about the Scott’s Bluff area, and I am excited to be involved in that telling. – Poppie Gullett

Support great projects like this one by making a gift to the Public Lands History Center. 

PLHC in the news for completion of project on Japanese American Internment during WWII in New Mexico

History team finishes documenting N.M. Japanese-American confinement camps

American West Program to Host CSU Extension Session on Colorado Farmers and Ranchers on October 5th



  • Joanne Littlefield, Ph.D., (Director, Extension Outreach and Engagement)
  • C.J. Mucklow (Extension Western Regional Director)
  • Rick Knight, Ph.D.  (Professor, Human Dimensions of Natural Resources, Warner College)

In 1914, Congress authorized land-grant universities in every state to provide research-based information to Extension agents in each county. For over 100 years, CSU Extension has helped people in Colorado find the answers they need—for a healthy home life and successful business. This panel reflects on this rich legacy by addressing farm and ranching technologies and values, past, present, and future. Littlefield will explore farmers’ and ranchers’ evolving commitments to sustainable and productive land use. Knight will consider the ways in which ranching and ranch families might bridge the divide between rural and urban America through their provision of food and open spaces. Mucklow will examine land users’ and managers’ common interest in sustaining both the health of land and people’s attachment to landscapes that provide important resources, whether food, forest, or recreation.

Please RSVP for the event by clicking here.

Support great projects like the American West Program by making a gift to the Public Lands History Center. 



Parks as Portals to Learning featured in CSU Source!

CSU students gain real-world experience helping national park managers

PLHC to host March Brown Bag Professionalization Series

The month of March’s Brown Bag Professionalization Series will take place on Wednesday, March 28 in the PLHC Commons. Maggie Dennis will be the featured speaker. Maggie works with the Cache La Poudre National Heritage Area, and will be talking about her experiences. This will be an excellent opportunity to learn about local Fort Collins public history initiatives. For more information, see the event page.

Flyer 28 March copy

American West Program to Host Signature Semester Event

The Public Land History Center’s American West Program will host its signature event for Spring 2017 on Thursday, March 23 at 7:00pm in the Morgan Library Event Hall. Professor Ann Little of the Colorado State University History Department will be speaking about her book The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright, and will highlight the cultural, environmental, and political continuities extending from the frontiers of the colonial northeast to the frontiers of the 19th century TransMissippi West. This will be a thoughtful evening where Professor Little will be making connections between frontiers in the west and frontiers in the east.


“Midnight Ramble” Event February 28, 2017

On February 28, the American West Program hosted “Midnight Ramble: Oscar Micheaux and the Story of the Black Film Industry.” Colorado State University professors Dr. Gillian Bowser and Dr. Ruth Alexander presented on the significance of this documentary and touched on themes of African American Silent Fil, Cowboys and the American West. It was an evening full of thoughtful dialogue.

Dr. Gillian Bowser and Dr. Ruth Alexander at the "Midnight Ramble" event on February 28, 2016

Dr. Gillian Bowser and Dr. Ruth Alexander at the “Midnight Ramble” event on February 28, 2016


PLHC’s American West Program Hosts Event in Honor of Black History Month

16700665_1916429518585677_4183679358784120680_oOn February 28, 2017 from 7-8:30pm the Public Land History Center’s American West Program will be hosting a screening of a documentary “Midnight Ramble.” This documentary provokes thoughtful conversation about African American Silent Film, Cowboys and the American West.

PLHC Brown Bag Professionalization Series

About once a month, the PLHC hots Professionalization events for students to help them network, learn professional development skills and engage in good conversation about working in the public history field. Here are some photos from the most recent Brown Bag event, featuring Maggie Moss Jones. IMG_6002 IMG_6003 IMG_6004