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


Squatters Cultivate Marijuana Gardens

Los Angeles - Marijuana gardens planted illegally by squatters in the
national forests of California are growing steadily larger and producing
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

"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 smokeable 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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