Pubdate: Wed, 25 Oct 2000
Source: Redding Record Searchlight (CA)
Copyright: 2000 Redding Record Searchlight - E.W. Scripps
Contact:  PO Box 492397, Redding, CA 96049-2397
Author: Alex Breitler, Record Searchlight, PLANTATION RAIDS REACH A RECORD

Somewhere in the hills of western Tehama County, marijuana growers are 
rushing to harvest the last of their crops, drying them in the sun and 
packaging the green bud for transportation to cities across the country.

Soon they'll leave the makeshift camps they've called home since the 
gardens were planted in the spring. And they may consider themselves lucky 
for avoiding the long arm of the law during a record-breaking marijuana 
eradication season that only now is waning.

Most of the action this year was focused on the forested hills 15 miles 
west of Corning, where more than 45,000 plants were pulled from the ground 
within 6 square miles in two months.

Shasta County sheriff's officials, meanwhile, uprooted 4,000 plants 
countywide. That's the third biggest seizure since the 1980s, Sheriff Jim 
Pope said.

Questions remain as fall rains drench what's left of the harvesting season: 
How many more gardens were never found? And why so many in Tehama County?

"Yes, we're thrilled we took so much (marijuana) off the street," Sheriff 
Clay Parker said. "But it's obvious for some reason people think Tehama 
County is a good place to grow."

It might be. The county covers 2,951 square miles and is home to 54,012 
people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That adds up to 18.3 people 
per square mile.

Shasta County has 43.5 people per square mile. The state average is 212.5.

Most of the large gardens raided by authorities this year were found in 
remote canyons far from any civilization except U.S. Forest Service roads 
and a few scattered ranches. They were tended by Mexican citizens, illegal 
immigrants recruited from their villages to come to America and grow marijuana.

With few people and a lot of space, Tehama County may be the rural area 
growers are looking for.

"Any area that is isolated and not subject to a great deal of activity, 
there's a reasonable probability that there's going to be some marijuana 
around," said Tehama County Supervisor George Russell. "I really think that 
it (the increase) is coincidental. Ask anyone who knows, and you'll find 
all along that range of mountains, there's marijuana activity."

Tehama County's seizures soared this year in part because sheriff's 
officials have increased their vigilance, Parker said. In the past, 
marijuana cultivation enforcement wasn't looked on as all that important, 
the sheriff said.

But in Shasta County, it's always been a priority, Pope said. He said the 
big-time growers were scared away years ago, making Shasta County's numbers 
significantly lower than those of Tehama County.

"Back in the 1980s, we really slowed down production," Pope said. "A lot of 
them left."

These days, the sheriff's Marijuana Eradication Team finds small backyard 
or indoor gardens  not the large plantations Tehama County authorities 
have found, Pope said.

While the 4,000 plants seized doesn't begin to compare with those farther 
south, more than 100 marijuana-related arrests have been made in Shasta 
County this year. Compare that with 33 arrests made by Tehama County 
authorities in connection with seven plantations, 45,000 plants, a half-ton 
of harvested marijuana bud and 430 pounds of packaged marijuana found in 
three separate traffic stops.

Meanwhile, the cost of the covert raids is building. Tehama officials 
shelled out $23,000 in overtime for one bust alone. Much of the equipment 
used  like the $500-an-hour helicopter that's used to haul away uprooted 
plants  doesn't come cheap.

Statewide, gardens seem to be growing in size every year, said Mike Van 
Winkle, a spokesman for the state attorney general's office. A state 
organization for eliminating marijuana gardens reported 345,207 plants 
seized this year. That's 43 percent higher than last year's record.

The numbers don't include raids conducted by local law enforcement agencies.

The California Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP) aims only to 
destroy the plants and does not focus on arresting the growers, Van Winkle 
said. It also does not try to track down the gardeners' bosses.

"There is very little, if any, follow-up done on CAMP cases," he said. "We 
just don't have the resources."

It's often difficult to trace the chain of command from the growers to the 
leaders. Mexican nationals often face threats of violence to their families 
if they reveal who hired them, officials have said.

Local officials are left to conduct follow-up investigations, and Parker 
said Tehama County authorities have some leads. But the number of people 
involved in the Mexican cartels is "too many to count," he said.

There's only one way for authorities to eliminate the prevalence of large 
gardens, figures 41-year-old medical marijuana user Chris Ward of Red 
Bluff, and that's to eliminate the "huge demand" for the drug.

"If it was legal, there would be fewer problems," he said. "Anything that's 
prohibited or illegal, all you're doing is making a bigger market for it."

Reporter Alex Breitler can be reached at 225-8344 or at  ---
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