Pubdate: Mon, 03 Sep 2001
Source: Chicago Tribune (IL)
Copyright: 2001 Chicago Tribune Company
Author:  Karen Brandon, Chicago Tribune national correspondent


FRESNO, Calif. -- The annual harvest season has arrived again in 
California, the nation's top agricultural state, and by all accounts this 
year will produce another bumper yield of what is believed to be its most 
valuable cash crop: marijuana.

The Golden State, believed to be the nation's leading marijuana producer 
and by far the nation's leader in eradicating the plant, is in the midst of 
its intensive summer and fall campaign to beat the marijuana growers to the 

This is why helicopters hover over remote areas of the state, searching the 
landscape for the emerald, almost fluorescent green color that 
distinguishes marijuana from practically every other plant that grows in a 
garden, farm or forest.

Once the plants are found, agents rappel from the helicopters to cull the 
plants--more than 900,000 a year in the past two years. The states that 
traditionally vie for second and third place are Hawaii and Kentucky, which 
each bring in about half that number.

Law-enforcement officials say marijuana cultivation once was largely a 
mom-and-pop operation conducted in the coastal mountain ranges of remote 
northern California, where the dense redwood groves are broken up by 
outposts of what the remainder of the country would regard as hippies.

But now, they say, the dynamics have changed. Marijuana cultivation is 
increasingly dominated by huge, sophisticated operations producing 
marijuana that is said to be 20 times more potent than that available in 
the 1960s and '70s.

"It's a corporate approach to growing marijuana," said Michael Van Winkle, 
spokesman for the California Department of Justice, spearhead of the state 
Campaign Against Marijuana Planting.

Mexican drug cartels have begun planting large marijuana farms in 
California's Central Valley, the same region where the majority of the 
nation's fruits and vegetables are cultivated, he said.

There, obscured by the dense brush that covers the foothills of the Sierra 
Nevada on the Central Valley's eastern flank, growers set up operations 
with tens of thousands of plants. They recruit farm workers by promising 
higher wages than they would make tending legal crops.

The workers take care of the spring-fed irrigation systems, uproot male 
plants that can reduce or ruin the quality of the marijuana buds of the 
female and guard the operation, generally with guns and automatic weapons, 
from hikers who happen onto the site or interlopers who might confiscate 
the plants.

102,000 plants seized

Five years ago, Van Winkle said, the biggest fields seized contained about 
5,000 plants. But in July, officials discovered a field with more than 
102,000 plants on Palomar Mountain, a peak in a San Diego County national 
forest that is topped by a space research observatory.

The potential profit is enormous, with dried marijuana selling for $4,000 a 
pound, nearly the price of a pound of gold, Van Winkle observed.

In 1998, when the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws 
analyzed the market value of the California crop, it concluded that the 
value of the marijuana exceeded $3.8 billion, more than the production 
value of the state's grapes and almonds combined.

The increase in cultivation and the crackdown on growers come during a 
five-year legal and political battle that suggests Californians are 
somewhat ambivalent about the illegality of marijuana.

Proposition 215, a 1996 voter initiative, made the state one of the first 
of nine states to allow patients to possess and use the plant with a 
doctor's approval. Last year, Mendocino County in northern California 
passed Measure G, a symbolic prohibition on arresting anyone growing 25 or 
fewer marijuana plants.

And though production in northern California has been eclipsed by the 
Central Valley, officials there also are uncovering increasingly 
sophisticated operations.

Rusty Noe, who heads the Mendocino County sheriff's marijuana eradication 
team, said a two-year investigation led to the eradication in March of 
29,000 marijuana plants, all grown indoors in an operation that was 
disguised as a ranch.

"There were 15 buildings, all built to look like houses," Noe said. "They 
were all marijuana grow sites."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom