A little-spoken-of war is taking place behind California's fences and property lines: Trespassing marijuana growers are setting booby traps, resorting to violence and vandalism, and spoiling the land by stealing water and spraying dangerous chemicals that leach into streams.
As the federal government focuses on stopping illegal marijuana crops in public parklands and U.S. forests, sheriff's and state drug enforcement officials face the persistent and potentially dangerous problem of pot growers commandeering private land for their crops.
While some land owners fear violence, others face environmental havoc.
Last year, the Mendocino County grand jury found that trespassing growers had clear-cut trees and destroyed vegetation, diverted streams and littered the landscape with animal carcasses, garbage, human waste, herbicides and animal poisons.
The report found toxic compounds used as fertilizer and pesticides were being mixed in dammed streambeds, and "toxins have devastated bird and aquatic life and pose a threat to human habitat."
Anyone who wants physical proof of the potential for violence can visit Lake County Supervisor Rob Brown's office at the courthouse in Lakeport, where Brown keeps a souvenir booby trap on display that he removed from his property. It looks like a giant wooden flyswatter with about 20 to 30 punji sticks - sharpened sticks frequently encountered during the Vietnam War - pressed through it.
Brown found the trap attached to a heavy block and trip wire. It was designed to swing out, the weight of the block adding momentum and force, so that the sharpened sticks would strike the victim's face.
In July 2008, Brown discovered about 1,000 young marijuana plants on his 300-acre property where he grazed a herd of about 80 bison.
Two days after he'd called the sheriff's department about the find, a narcotics team, along with members from the state's Campaign Against Marijuana Planting, assisted in the cleanup. While flying over Brown's property in a helicopter, they discovered many more marijuana gardens planted throughout the area.
7,500 plants on land
Nearly one-third of Brown's land was covered with the crop. The teams eradicated nearly 5,000 plants that day. A couple of days later, Brown discovered 2,500 more. Brown, who also works as a bail bondsman, acted on his instinct to go after whoever planted the illegal crop.
"I actually sat at that grow for three days, off and on, waiting for whoever it was that was going to tend them to come back, so I could catch them," Brown said. "I had my rifle, so I wasn't alone."
After the eradication of the gardens, someone cut the border fences, which allowed some of Brown's bison to escape the property. In two separate incidents, a passing vehicle struck a bison that had wandered out of an opening in the fence and onto the road. As the owner of the bison, Brown was liable for damages to the vehicles involved in the accidents.
"I had to buy two new cars," said Brown, who suspects the vandalism was retribution from the growers for destroying their crop, estimated to be worth $15 million - a conservative number assuming that each plant would yield about one pound of usable drug at an average rate of $2,000 per pound.
Brown has since opened his land to law enforcement for the purposes of training field agents. The officers and deputies come during growing season and use the land to practice tracking techniques and eradication methods. Brown hasn't found evidence of trespassers since he allowed the training operations on his property.
According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, more than 10.3 million marijuana plants were eradicated or seized in the United States in 2008 under the agency's Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program. More than 7.5 million plants were seized in California that year.
Lake, Tulare, Shasta, Los Angeles and Mendocino counties were the highest-producing areas of outdoor marijuana cultivation in California in 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. The five counties account for 35 percent of outdoor eradications in the state, officials say.
Despite the eradication efforts, some county law enforcement officials complain that budget cuts are hampering their efforts, just as the illegal grows are burgeoning.
Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman estimates that 30 percent of his department's resources and staffing are dedicated to marijuana issues during the growing months. He said the department would usually only pursue gardens that have 100 plants or more, unless there is a public safety or environmental concern.
Some landowners have attempted to remove the marijuana gardens themselves, an action that is discouraged by law enforcement.
Sonoma County case
Santa Rosa resident and retired teacher Carol Vellutini was tending her 300-acre property in Sonoma County when she noticed an unusual trail leading up the hill. Vellutini, knowing the reputation of the area, was certain of what she would find there.
She and a friend hiked for nearly an hour until they stumbled upon drip lines. Following the lines, they found a grow site. There was a nursery, with many marijuana seedlings growing out of starter cups, and a large adult crop with plants more than 6 feet tall.
Furious, she began yanking the plants. She collected garbage, pesticides and fertilizer that she found at the scene, and plans to bring what she found to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors to show them.
Vellutini said she has had mixed results with Sonoma County law enforcement. Since she discovered the garden in 2005, sheriff's deputies and Department of Justice agents do annual flyovers and attempt to seize any plants they see.
'I've had it,' landowner says
But Vellutini said she has had no help in permanently removing the growers from her property or removing the garbage and contaminants left behind.
"They fly over every year and pull the plants when they see them," she said. "But they never go in to find the growers, arrest them, make them leave, or prevent them from coming back. Every year they come back, and you have the same trash and pollution and damage. I've had it."
Patrick Foy, a warden with the state Department of Fish and Game, said the agency is concerned about poaching, pollution and habitat destruction. The growers will kill any animals they see, either as food or to prevent them from damaging the crop.
Because water is the No. 1 factor for growers when choosing their sites, chemicals used on illegal grow sites end up in creeks and rivers, Foy said. Habitat destruction is apparent as soon as you walk onto one of the grow sites, he said.
Trees cut away
Trees and brush get cut away to make room for the crop. Foy said poachers often flatten a large section of land, tossing the trees, branches and vegetation on the ground to create a makeshift wall to conceal the grow site.
Roundup and other herbicides are used to kill competing flora. Water diversion denies areas of vital fluids, destroying fish and wildlife habitats. The areas around grow sites become dead zones.
The unregulated marijuana crop is sold to consumers with all the grow-site chemicals included. Landowner Vellutini said she doesn't smoke marijuana but is concerned about the health of people who do.
"They don't know what they're smoking," Vellutini said. "I've seen the stuff that's going on them. That stuff is sprayed with so many herbicides and pesticides. It's awful. And I don't know what effect that's having on a person, but it's got to be something. It's toxic pot."
Robert Townsend, California Watch
Sunday, April 24, 2011
NOTE: there is a map showing the size of seizures in CA on the linked article, but image can not be copied. Pic here
Dear Drugs-Forum readers: We are a small non-profit that runs one of the most read drug information & addiction help websites in the world. We serve over 4 million readers per month, and have costs like all popular websites: servers, hosting, licenses and software. To protect our independence we do not run ads. We take no government funds. We run on donations which average $25. If everyone reading this would donate $5 then this fund raiser would be done in an hour. If Drugs-Forum is useful to you, take one minute to keep it online another year by donating whatever you can today. Donations are currently not sufficient to pay our bills and keep the site up. Your help is most welcome. Thank you.