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November 29-December 5, 2006

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Pot patrol

Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
Chopper: Sheriffs borrow the one surveillance copter available to scan for green grows.

Dark Green

If you smoke pot, there's a chance your weed was produced by a drug syndicate that pays poor immigrant laborers to camp out in the woods with guns and and foul the environment. Does that bring you down?

By Stett Holbrook


If there were a television commercial for marijuana, you could imagine it featuring some good-looking adults passing a joint around a dinner table, laughing and having fun while a pro-pot celebrity like Woody Harrelson or Lenny Kravitz walked on with a knowing smile and made a pitch for smoking herb. "Pot. It's natural. It's organic. The way nature meant it to be."

Society no longer regards marijuana as the devil weed. While once reviled as a fast ticket to an underworld of crime and vice, the days of "reefer madness" have evolved into tolerance. In California, possession of under an ounce is a misdemeanor that carries a $100 fine. Since the passage of Proposition 215 in 1996, people with medical conditions are relatively free to smoke, possess and grow pot as long as they have a doctor's note. For everyone else, it's still naughty, but much of society seems to regard pot as an entirely different drug than cocaine, methamphetamine or heroin.

Showtime's hit series Weeds, about a suburban mom who deals pot to make ends meet, is a further indication of how social mores have changed. There's no way the show would be as popular if it featured a lovable crack dealer. And then there's Willie Nelson, perhaps the country's best-known dope smoker and legalization advocate. "I think people need to be educated to the fact that marijuana is not a drug," Nelson has been quoted as saying. "Marijuana is an herb and a flower. God put it here. If he put it here and he wants it to grow, what gives the government the right to say that God is wrong?"

Nelson is not alone in his live-and-let-live views on marijuana. After alcohol and tobacco, marijuana is the third most popular drug in America. According to government surveys, marijuana has been used by approximately 80 million people. Twenty million people smoked pot in the past year, and 11 million smoke it regularly.

It's just pot, right? What's the big deal?

The big deal is this: In spite of widespread social acceptance and evidence that smoking marijuana is less harmful than consuming alcohol or tobacco, pot has an ugly side that shatters its happy hippie image as an innocuous herb.

The reality many recreational smokers don't want to hear is that pot can be a dirty, bloody business. While there are countless backyard growers and small-scale pot farmers who stay clear of the nasty side of cultivation, the marijuana trade is increasingly controlled by Mexican drug-trafficking organizations. That's especially true in California, the No. 1 pot-growing state. While once controlled by relatively benign hippie growers and opportunists in the "emerald triangle" in Humboldt, Trinity and Mendocino counties, Mexican drug syndicates have muscled into the business over the past years, government authorities say, ratcheting up production and profits as well as violence to protect their crops.

"The same people who have been bringing you cocaine, meth and heroin are now bringing you marijuana," says Rich Camps, a task-force commander for the state Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement. "They've added it to their portfolio."

What's more, the growers who have set up shop in the state's wild lands are fouling the environment by piling trash, siphoning local creeks for irrigation and dumping pounds of fertilizer, pesticides and human waste into the water table and sensitive habitats.

"It's a serious pollution issue," says John Nores, a warden with the California Department of Fish and Game.

It's not just law enforcement that decries black-market pot. From the other side of the aisle is Valerie Corral. She's co-founder of the Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana, a nonprofit collective that provides marijuana to the seriously ill. She's been arrested three times on marijuana charges and is an outspoken critic of current marijuana laws, but she too condemns the criminal underground that has turned pot into an organized-crime industry.

"I think people don't see the harm caused by the illicit market," she says. Just as purchasing petroleum products or fast food can have negative social consequences, so does buying marijuana grown by drug traffickers, she believes. "I think the important thing is to observe our impacts as consumers."

While there's not yet a fair trade, organic brand of marijuana for conscientious pot smokers, Corral urges like-minded people to educate themselves about what she sees as the value of legalized marijuana and to take a stand for better access to marijuana for those who need it.

New Green Gold Rush

There are different theories about why Mexican drug traffickers are now growing pot on California soil in such large quantities. Some say it's because clampdowns at the U.S.-Mexican border have made smuggling the drug harder, making it more practical to grow it here. However, Camps believes law enforcement's efforts to shut down methamphetamine labs in California by restricting the sale of the chemicals needed to make the drug have left a criminal "workforce" without work. Growing weed has filled the void, he says.

"There's big money to be made in marijuana, and that's why they're figuring it out," he says.

The infiltration of Mexican pot growers into California rural lands has ushered in an era of low-intensity warfare between the growers and law enforcement. California's Campaign Against Marijuana Production (CAMP) began in 1983. It's a multi-agency task force that flies helicopters all over the state looking for pot groves and chopping them down. Since CAMP's inception, plant seizures have gone up almost every year. Last year's eradication of 1.1 million plants was a new record, and in October, with about a month left to go in the 2006 season, CAMP had already set a new record with 1.7 million plants, valued at more than $6.7 billion. Of those, Sonoma County had some 74,000 plants seized; Napa had 31,300 and Marin had at least 20,000 plants grabbed, many of them found growing on the municipal water district's land. What's more, growth and harvest in the South Bay continues to enlarge, with some 47,000 plants taken this year.

Unlike North Bay counties south of Humboldt that divert police and sheriff power to marijuana detection and eradication, the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office this year received a state grant to create its first-ever marijuana eradication team (MET). The team is on the job all year long. During the spring-to-fall growing season, they fly over the hills in helicopters trying to spot gardens and hike across rugged terrain with topo maps and GPS devices in hand to sniff out illicit pot farms. During the winter months, they explore sites they may have missed and reconnoiter gardens they plan to hit during the next growing season.

Pot Cops

The MET deputies don't want their names revealed, as a precaution against retribution. Both are former patrol deputies and members of the sheriff's office SWAT team. One is a baby-faced deputy with a buzz cut and a quick smile. His partner is the more reserved of the two. He's an intense man with glasses, a thin build and a calculating stare.

As big as this year's haul has been, the shorthaired deputy says there's a lot they're not finding. He estimates they're missing 60 percent to 70 percent of the pot growing in the county. "It seems like it's wildly out of control," he says. "These guys will do it anywhere and spare no expense."

The deputies say they have no interest in raiding medicinal marijuana gardens. Under Proposition 215, medical marijuana patients or their caregivers are allowed to have six mature or 12 immature plants. As long as medicinal pot growers can provide a medical marijuana card, they leave the gardens alone, they say.

"We respect state law and respect the right of people to have medical marijuana," says the shorthaired deputy.

But with 23 raids of large-scale illegal gardens under their belts this year, these antipot commandos are more than a minor irritation to the illicit growers.

"It's getting more and more violent every year," says the bespectacled member of the eradication team. "I could use another five guys on my team and use them seven days a week. There's just so much [marijuana]."

Going to the Grow

On a recent foggy morning just before dawn, the scene in the parking lot of a Los Gatos church was enough to make an early rising parishioner whisper a few Hail Marys and run for cover. Six men in camouflage fatigues and bulletproof vests stepped out of unmarked vehicles and began to unsheathe various semiautomatic weapons. The MET deputies and other deputies assigned to help them smeared on dark face paint and racked their rifles, chambering rounds with a series of metallic clacks and pops.

A few weeks earlier, one of the deputies flew over the area with a pilot in the sheriff's department's sole helicopter. Both deputies received training in aerial marijuana spotting in Mendocino County, the state's best outdoor classroom for learning such a skill. Banking over the rugged, steep terrain above the Sierra Azul Open Space Preserve, the MET deputy saw a telltale patch of green that was much brighter and lighter than the manzanita, oak and chemise that forests the hillsides here. After flying over it a few times to confirm what he saw (but hopefully not close enough to arouse too much suspicion of anyone hiding out in the garden), he marked the site with his GPS device and added it to an ever-growing list of gardens he wanted to hit.

While the GPS certainly helps locate a "grow," as the deputies call pot gardens, two of the most reliable signs are decidedly more low-tech: foot trails and black irrigation pipe. The heavy rains this spring could be part of the reason for this year's bumper crop. Growers lug in miles of the plastic pipe and divert water from creeks and drainages to feed their thirsty crops. Find a black pipe snaking along the ground and follow it downhill, chances are good you'll find a garden. And where there are gardens, there are often gardeners.

Once at the grow, what they found was typical of these large-scale marijuana operations. The area around the garden was heaped with garbage and toxic waste. There was evidence of the growers' camp, including a dismantled tent, blankets, camping stove, empty fuel canisters, food wrappers, plastic water bottles and empty cans of food. Scattered throughout the camp were empty jugs and bags of fertilizer and pesticides. Nearby, the growers had dug two pits and lined them with heavy black plastic and piped in water from a nearby drainage to create a makeshift irrigation tank. The basins are often filled with fertilizer and other chemicals, creating a toxic soup that leeches into the ground and, potentially, back into creeks and groundwater supplies.

"Whatever makes it downstream or underground is toast," says Nores of the Department of Fish and Game.

As for the weed itself, about a thousand chest-high plants were growing from individually dug holes. They were several weeks from budding, so rather than haul them out, the deputies simply clipped them with pruning shears and let them lie where they fell. Once cut, marijuana plants won't grow back.

In addition to the trash, the growers left something else that reminded the deputies of what they were up against each time they raided a pot garden: a gun holster and empty boxes of .357 caliber hollow-point rounds. Once they enter the body, the bullets are designed to splinter and cause maximum damage.

Just a few miles away from this grow was the scene of a raid last year that didn't go as well. The MET deputies, two state Fish and Game wardens and other sheriff's office deputies were walking through a dense garden of marijuana when they were ambushed by two men hiding in the plants armed with AK-47s. Shots rang out and Fish and Game warden Kyle Kroll was struck by a bullet that went through both his legs. The deputies returned fire and hit one man. The other suspected pot grower escaped into the woods and was never found in spite of a huge manhunt. Kroll spent three hours waiting for an airlift. He's since recovered from his wounds. By the time a medical team arrived, the wounded suspect was dead.

Camps, the task force commander with the Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement, said he later learned the suspect was part of the Michoacan-based drug-trafficking organization. The man's family never claimed his body.

Legalize It?

Advocates for marijuana legalization say prohibition and profit drive the illegal market. Even though California has decriminalized possession of marijuana, it ensures illegal cultivation will flourish, says Corral, co-founder of the medical marijuana cooperative.

"It helps proliferate the illegal market," she says. "We don't look at the far-reaching impact."

Dale Gieringer, California coordinator for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, believes that only when growing marijuana is legal will the violence and nefarious nature of the illegal drug trade stop. What's more, he says a state-controlled marijuana industry could rake in huge sums of money through taxation.

"This is a multibillion industry that's being lost to the state through criminality."

But until the laws change, the war against the growers has to continue, he says.

"As long as you have this dumb game of prohibition, [law enforcement] doesn't have much choice."

For his part, the shorthaired deputy with the marijuana eradica tion team doesn't lose sleep over the legalization debate or the efficacy of what he does. His job is to enforce the law, and growing pot is illegal.

"If it wasn't a felony tomorrow, we'd find something else to do," he says.


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