Drug agents can't keep up with pot growers
By John Ritter, USA TODAY
Thu Oct 13, 6:34 AM ET
In the waning days of a record season, a helicopter buzzes treetops here in a remote corner of the "Emerald Triangle," redwood country notorious as the USA's premier producer of marijuana.
State narcotics officers from CAMP - Campaign Against Marijuana Planting - are searching for "gardens" to eradicate and find six on a warm, cloudless day.
They strap onto a 150-foot cable dangling from the chopper, drop into the pot patches, hack down the plants and bundle them for the chopper to haul back to a landing zone.
Perhaps $500,000 worth of America's favorite illegal drug is trucked off for burial. It's not a big day by CAMP standards: 813 plants that fill a pickup bed. In this ever-growing illicit market, agents routinely find plots of 5,000 and 10,000 plants that require dump trucks to dispose of.
In the 2005 growing season, CAMP says it so far has destroyed more plants than ever - 1.1 million worth $4.5 billion on the street, up from 621,000 plants last year. But agents still lost ground to growers. No longer is marijuana cultivation the cottage industry that flourished in the 1960s and '70s after waves of counterculture migrants bought cheap land in the northern California mountains and grew pot for their own use and extra income.
Mexican criminals using sophisticated methods have spread the marijuana industry across California, traditionally the nation's main domestic source because of a mild climate and vast stretches of isolated landscape ideal for clandestine growing, say the authorities.
As recently as 10 years ago, the Emerald Triangle counties of Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity grew virtually all of the state's pot. Now every California county that's not desert has a problem. Because of tighter security on the southern U.S. border, Mexicans simply made a business decision to move north.
"In the last two or three years almost 100% of the gardens we've eradicated are Mexican drug cartel gardens," says James Parker, the senior narcotics agent who oversees CAMP. "It's alarming if you think about it."
Today's high potency weed is so valuable - $5,000 or more for a pound of buds on the East Coast - that big operators employ armed guards who camp in pot gardens for months, nurturing plants that grow to 15 feet and taller. A state Fish and Game officer was wounded and a suspect shot and killed in a Santa Clara County bust in June, the fourth incident in two years.
Scarring the landscape
There would be more violence if growers weren't able to flee at the sound of a helicopter looking for gardens, says Jack Nelsen, CAMP's regional operations commander here. "This time of year, they won't go far -- the plants are worth too much," he says. "If we don't come back soon enough they'll be in there harvesting until we do."
Fishermen and hikers stumble onto armed men in the woods who threaten them and demand that they leave. Pot-growing has become epidemic both on privately owned timber tracts and public lands in California, including national forests and parks.
"A lot of terrain is so rugged and dense with foliage you wouldn't think about taking your family to those areas," Parker says. "It's amazing how much work these Mexicans put in to get a crop out."
Growers scar the landscape by crudely terracing hillsides that erode under winter rain. They spill pesticides, fertilizer and diesel fuel used to power generators that run extensive drip-irrigation systems. They dam creeks for water sources, plant salsa gardens, disfigure trees and leave behind tons of garbage, human waste and litter.
"They'll pour fertilizer right into a stream, then irrigate out of it," says Alexandra Picavet, a Sequoia National Park ranger. "That creates algae blooms, hurts fish and animals and contaminates downstream." Since 2001, officers have destroyed 105 pot gardens covering 181 acres in the park but have had enough money to clean up fewer than half the sites. "We think that for every one we've been able to eradicate, there's another one out there," Picavet says.
CAMP's critics equate the program with Prohibition in the 1930s.
"Look at the amount of economic value we're destroying," says Dale Gieringer, director of California NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "This could be legally taxed and regulated and we could all be making money off it. We never saw this lawlessness until there were drug laws and CAMP." NORML estimates that Californians' pot consumption could yield at least $250 million a year in sales taxes.
Gieringer also says that, despite the government's assertion, there is no evidence that Mexican cartels are involved in the cultivation.
Roger Rodoni is a cattle rancher and registered Republican who has represented a conservative district in Humboldt County - conservative by local standards, anyway - on the board of supervisors since 1997. He calls CAMP "an exercise in futility."
"It's a vast expenditure of public funds that for all practical purposes does no good," Rodoni, 65, says. Demand for marijuana keeps growing, and CAMP has done little to stem the supply, he says. As evidence he points to a drop in the price of "the quality stuff'" from $6,000 a pound a few years ago to $3,000 today.
A June report for Taxpayers for Common Sense by Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron found that despite billions of dollars spent on marijuana suppression - nearly $4 billion by the federal government in 2004 alone - usage is about the same as 30 years ago.
CAMP, an arm of the state attorney general's office, was formed in 1983 to help understaffed local authorities ferret out large-scale marijuana crops grown for profit, particularly in isolated areas far from roads where helicopters were needed. Five eradication teams deployed in different regions of the state operated this year on a $1.1 million budget, about three-quarters of it supplied by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.
CAMP agents, with help from local sheriff's deputies and loaners from the National Guard, the state forestry department, the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service, have arrested 42 suspects, seized 76 weapons and raided 742 gardens.
But CAMP has made little headway penetrating and prosecuting the Mexican hierarchies allegedly behind most of the busted gardens. "They're similar to al-Qaeda, they're cells," says Sgt. James "Rusty" Noe of the Mendocino County sheriff's office. "We go out and find some guy in the garden and we arrest him, he's not going to know anything."
Since last year, two CAMP investigative teams have concentrated on tracking the Mexican drug bosses, and arrests have been made in Fresno and Redding. Parker says he'll ask for three more investigative units for 2006.
CAMP teams start reconnaissance flights in early spring as growers are preparing gardens - clearing land, setting up water systems, hauling in supplies and setting up campsites. When agents see a garden from the helicopter they fix its location with GPS.
Growers adapt to surveillance
Seizures have risen dramatically because of more aggressive air surveillance and larger gardens. But growers have adapted, CAMP's Nelsen says. They used to plant uniform plots in open ground - marijuana thrives in full sunlight - but those were easily spotted, even from an airplane at 5,000 feet.
Now gardens are tucked under the forest canopy, often on steep slopes, and strung out along hillside contours so they're much harder to see. Growers expect many of their gardens to be busted, so they put as many plants in the ground in as many locations as they can.
"It's a lot like what they do on the border," Parker says. "They'll try to send 70 cars through thinking a few are going to get picked off and that it's a cost of doing business."
These days, other counties have eclipsed the Emerald Triangle in confiscated marijuana. Shasta County led the state as of last week, according to CAMP figures: 209,864 plants eradicated compared with 52,133 all of last year.
The Central Valley counties of Tulare and Fresno, two of the nation's biggest agricultural producers, now rank No. 2 and 4. Mendocino had the fifth most plants seized, and Humboldt has slipped to No. 12. CAMP doesn't operate in California's two most populous counties, Los Angeles and San Diego, because authorities there have ample resources to go after marijuana themselves, Parker says.
"The Mexicans have basically found out how easy it is to find locations and find people to work these gardens," Nelsen says. "These organizations are even moving into some of the eastern counties in snow country."
Cultivation of medical marijuana, legalized by California voters in 1996, has expanded the supply, particularly from indoor production, and complicated efforts to crack down on the illegal market.
CAMP doesn't bother with medical marijuana growers, even large ones who say they're providing pot to many sick people. "We're not here to take anyone's medicine away," Nelsen says.
But medical marijuana has made it harder to figure out who the bad guys are, Noe says. The law left it up to counties and cities to set guidelines. Some have zero tolerance for medical marijuana; others have set limits on the number of plants. Mendocino County is wide open.
"The amount of marijuana cultivated in this county almost doubled because anybody can grow it in their backyard," Noe says. "The criminal element has taken advantage of the law."
Mendocino County started going after pot growers in the early 1980s after a spate of violence. Six deputy sheriffs, a sergeant, a legal secretary and an evidence technician operated on a $500,000 budget, Noe says. Today, it's Noe, a deputy and a $300,000 budget.
But with CAMP's help, the cops are more effective, he says, more than doubling the number of plants destroyed in the county compared with early years.
And each of those plants carries a lot more kick today. No more of the baggies with stems and seeds that baby boomers remember from their college days. Growers learned to "sex" the plants - cull the males early in the season to deny the females pollination and prevent buds from going to seed.
In a futile effort to attract pollen, the female plants produce more and more THC, the active ingredient and the source of marijuana's "high." The plant's buds get fatter and fatter. By September, they're sticky with THC and ready to harvest. "Back in the '60s and '70s the stuff imported from Mexico, there wasn't much bud to it," Noe says. "If it was good quality maybe the THC was 5%."
Tests nowadays find THC content as high as 21%, he says.