On Wednesday, a helicopter buzzed over the rugged hills of Mendocino National Forest and lowered five narcotics agents dressed in green fatigues and armed with guns, clippers and machetes. Under the bright blue sky, the crew began to cut down thousands of marijuana plants that were flourishing with the help of an irrigation system in a remote section of the forest in Tehama County.
It was, in short, a typical summer day in California.
For the past 28 years, the state’s Campaign Against Marijuana Planting has been a predictable rite of summer. Run by the California attorney general and financed in part by the federal government, it deploys “eradicators” to aide sheriffs and park rangers in trimming the state’s huge marijuana crop. Crews have cut down more than 20 million plants over the years, including 4.3 million last year.
But this may be CAMP’s last summer. The state budget signed by Gov. Jerry Brown last month eliminates its financing as part of the widespread cuts to programs in law enforcement, courts and social services.
“At this point I don’t think we know what would happen to CAMP next year,” said Lynda Gledhill, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Kamala Harris.
The federal Drug Enforcement Administration has vowed to keep financing its part of the program, but since CAMP is operated by the state, the state’s money appears crucial for it to continue. CAMP’s 2010 operations cost taxpayers more than $3 million. The state contributed $1 million, and the D.E.A. contributed $1.6 million. The state budget for 2012 cuts $71 million from the Division of Law Enforcement, including the narcotics bureau.
In the program’s early years, CAMP agents were known to buzz backyards in their helicopters and all but lay siege to some North Coast communities. Over the years, though, the focus has shifted to state, county and federal parks, which Mexican drug cartels and other large-scale growers have found to be excellent locations for illicit farms, the authorities say.
With CAMP now functioning more as a tool for protecting public lands from the depredations of large-scale marijuana farms, its potential disappearance, which a decade ago might have been widely celebrated on the North Coast, is instead raising alarms in many quarters.
William Ruzzamenti, the director of the Central Valley High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, said growers could return to the parks in full force.
“We’ve really pounded these folks who are growing on public lands, and CAMP has been our chief hammer in doing that,” said Mr. Ruzzamenti, a former D.E.A. agent. “If they do go away, I can see these folks flooding back into the parks.”
The concern is especially acute because the parks are facing the same budget crisis; the state is set to close 70 parks and reduce staffing in many others.
“These marijuana gardens produce huge amounts of environmental problems,” said Roy Stearns, a spokesman for the California Department of Parks and Recreation. “They’ve chopped down all kinds of trees and brush, causing erosion. They’ve introduced fertilizers and other chemicals that drain into watersheds.”
During Wednesday’s raid, agents found marijuana growing with an irrigation system that used water from a nearby stream. A bluish rodent poison was sprinkled at the base of the five-foot-high plants.
As is often the case in CAMP raids, the laborers maintaining the gardens had fled, leaving a campsite. Sleeping bags, a tortilla press, Spanish agriculture magazines and work boots were on the ground.
A religious candle with an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe sat in a tree. Next to it was a cross fashioned of twigs — and enlaced with marijuana buds.
As of Wednesday, the Medocino National Forest operation, part of larger effort by local, state and federal agencies, had produced 88 arrests and eliminated 373,000 plants.
CAMP operates all over the state. Last week, a crew of 16 descended on the 3,688-acre Mount Madonna County Park near Gilroy and cut down 5,000 to 10,000 marijuana plants growing on steep hillsides and remote ridges.
Law enforcement officials have deemed CAMP a cost-effective means of destroying marijuana plants. But even cutting down millions of plants in a year is just a trim. Mr. Ruzzamenti said he believed that law enforcement eradicated around 10 percent of the crop every year.
“It’s our belief that California is the leading producer of marijuana consumed in the United States — more than any other source, including Mexico,” Mr. Ruzzamenti said. “I can’t believe I’m saying it.”
Although marijuana gardens are normally in remote areas of the parks, Mr. Stearns of the parks department said unsuspecting hikers could stumble into dangerous situations. In 4,020-acre Sugarloaf Ridge State Park near Santa Rosa, he said, agents found a “rifle set up with a trip wire” protecting a garden.
Sugarloaf is one of the state parks that will be closed. Mr. Stearns said the parks department had not decided whether to lock the gates on the shuttered parks or keep them open so people can use them and report suspicious behavior.
“It’ll be tougher,” he said, “but we don’t want to give up this public ground to those who want to abuse it.”
The state’s advocates for legalizing marijuana say that the problem confronted by CAMP would not exist if marijuana were taxed and regulated like alcohol.
“Today, I assure you that Mexican drug cartels are not planting illegal vineyards in state parks to compete with Robert Mondavi,” said Jim Gray, a retired Orange County Superior Court judge who is supporting the Regulate Marijuana Like Wine initiative that he hopes will be on the 2012 ballot.
Dale Gierenger, California coordinator for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said he had been inspired to join Norml because of the CAMP program in the 1980s.
“I just thought it was outrageous that they should disrupt the peace of the wilderness with these military helicopters to destroy a plant that has been around since the dawn of mankind,” Mr. Gierenger said.
Although he said he supported spending less money on marijuana eradication, Mr. Gierenger also said CAMP had since reformed its “cowboy” image and “invasive” tactics, focusing more on large-scale gardens on public lands.
Meanwhile, many North Coast cultivators have shifted to small-scale, high-quality growing operations that serve the quasi-legal medical marijuana market, and therefore are less affected by CAMP eradication efforts. Some will even admit privately that they appreciate CAMP’s elimination of low-cost competition.
In the national forest, Brett McAndrews, a state narcotics agent, was leading the CAMP team. Sporting a baseball cap embroidered with a helicopter superimposed over a marijuana leaf, Mr. McAndrews used a pair of green loppers to cut down the marijuana plants. When asked if he thought it was making a difference, he said, “I think it does.”
The plants will eventually be shredded or buried, he said. His crew bundled up the plants, which were carried away by a helicopter, leaving stray marijuana leaves blowing in the wind.
By ZUSHA ELINSON
Published: July 28, 2011
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