Pubdate: Mon, 05 Feb 2001
Source: Newsday (NY)
Copyright: 2001 Newsday Inc.
Contact:  235 Pinelawn Rd., Melville NY 11747
Fax: (516)843-2986
Author: Thomas D. Elias, Special Correspondent


Los Angeles - Marijuana gardens planted illegally by squatters in the 
national forests of California are growing steadily larger and pro- ducing 
ever more lucrative and potent crops, law enforcement agencies reported as 
they wrapped up a record season of seizures in America's leading 
pot-growing state.

"There is a lot more growing out there," said Eric Nishimoto, spokesman for 
the Ventura County sheriff's department, which chopped down more than 
15,000 plants with a street value of about $22 million in the Los Padres 
National Forest during one month last fall.

"We're seeing more sophistication in the methods used, which can yield a 
much larger crop," he said. "We're not talking about the old days when some 
potheads grew a few plants for their own use." Overall, California 
authorities seized more than 420,000 marijuana plants last year, almost 
double the 241,000 in 1999. Agents of the joint federal-state-local 
California Campaign Against Marijuana Planting scored their biggest 
single-raid haul ever in September, confiscating 58,000 plants (street 
value: about $205 million) from a patch in the Sequoia National Forest 
northeast of Bakersfield.

Most pot plants produce about a pound of smokable weed apiece, with the 
street value ranging from $600 to $5,000 per pound, depending on potency.

That big money, says Sonya Barna, CAMP's director of operations, is the 
reason "we're not dealing with traditional hippie farmers anymore. A lot of 
them have been pushed out by pseudo-criminal organizations from Mexico who 
import labor and armed guards. It's more cost-effective to grow it here 
than to smuggle it in." Although one armed grower was killed this year by a 
CAMP agent-the first fatality in the campaign's 15-year history-most raids 
net plants but no growers. Many patches are equipped with watchtowers, 
which police say are principally intended to scare off poachers but also 
can provide warning when police approach.

Forest Service officials worry that the pot patches are affecting wildlife 
in national forests, as growers kill animals for food, cut away natural 
vegetation, litter and leave human waste lying about.

"Birds and animals are dying because of the pesticides they use," 
complained Kathy Good, a Forest Service spokeswoman. "They're also a big 
fire hazard because they use stoves and campfires unsafely." Nevertheless, 
some law enforcement officials believe their campaign is succeeding. "It's 
very, very expensive to set these gardens up, and they take a big hit 
financially when we strike," said Barna. "And the more we take from them, 
the less they can put out on the street." Improved police techniques are 
one reason for the increased haul from raids. Authorities become more 
efficient at spotting gardens from cruising helicopters, then either 
landing on level ground or dropping officers into remote ravines by cables 
as long as 150 feet.

But some law enforcement officials say the conflicted attitude of the 
California public makes enforcement complicated. The 1996 Proposition 215, 
aimed at legalizing medical marijuana, passed by 60 percent to 40 percent. 
Even state Attorney General Bill Lockyer, a Democrat, admits to some 

"I don't use drugs, and I don't condone drug use," he says. "I will use our 
authority to stamp out illegal drugs. But this is totally separate from my 
support of medical uses of marijuana."
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