Pubdate: Fri, 25 Aug 2006
Source: Modesto Bee, The (CA)
Copyright: 2006 The Modesto Bee
Author: Michael Doyle, Bee Washington Bureau
Bookmark: (Marijuana - California)
Bookmark: (Walters, John)


Drug Czar Notes Sierra Nevada Rife With Growers on Public Land

WASHINGTON -- The White House is sending money and some momentary
manpower to reinforce the fight against Central Valley marijuana growers.

When national drug czar John Walters lands in Fresno on Tuesday, he'll
be bringing a commitment of an additional $2.2 million in law
enforcement funding. The money will include $100,000 grants for
Fresno, Tulare and Kern counties, as well as more support for a
coordinated anti-pot campaign.

He'll also be bringing the extra attention that comes along with the
job of directing the White House Office of National Drug Control
Policy. That, too, has value for local law enforcement officials, even
though Walters lacks the star power of some of his

"It's all part of our effort to take back the public lands from the
marijuana growers," Bill Ruzzamenti, head of the Central Valley High
Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, said Thursday.

The Sierra Nevada is a particular focus as investigators track
producers who cultivate commercial gardens amid the area's national
treasures. Last year, Ruzzamenti said, 70 percent of the 2million
marijuana plants seized in the greater Central Valley were found on
public lands.

"The problem is getting worse," said Rep. Devin Nunes,

"There are so many mountains and valleys and peaks."

Reflecting the problem and the federal response, Nunes met this week
with Tulare County officials who pressed for more government
assistance. This includes securing $300,000, currently included in the
Senate's Interior Department spending bill, to help the county chase
marijuana growers off of public lands.

"The local officials are trying to nip this before someone gets
killed," Nunes said.

Local Officials Welcome Uncle Sam's Money

In this, the federal government plays several roles. Swinging the
spotlight may be the simplest.

Walters' trip to Fresno and adjoining areas Tuesday and Wednesday will
be his second to the region as drug czar. He has a far more subdued
profile than some of his predecessors, such as retired Army Gen. Barry
McCaffrey and William Bennett, one-time secretary of education.

Under Walters' watch, the White House has periodically tried to cut
funding for high-intensity drug trafficking area task forces such as
the one serving the Central Valley.

But Walters, who formerly served as Bennett's chief of staff, also has
a White House official's inherent ability to help set the public
agenda. A news conference Wednesday morning with local prosecutors and
drug-fighters will further rivet attention to the public land
pot-growing issue.

Uncle Sam's money is even more welcome by local officials. It comes in
several forms. One is an earmark in an annual appropriations bill,
such as the $300,000 that Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein secured in
the Senate bill for helping the Tulare County Sheriff's Department
fight pot on national forest land.

"The invasion of drug trafficking organizations on federal lands
constitutes a danger to visitors, agency employees and fire
suppression teams and damages pristine wildlands, requiring intensive
restoration," the Senate Appropriations Committee stated in its bill

The House and Senate still must agree on the final funding

Another form of federal aid comes through ongoing programs, among them
the Fresno-based Central Valley HIDTA, which coordinates antidrug
efforts between Sacramento and Bakersfield. When originally formed in
1999, the collaborative effort among federal, state and local agencies
focused on methamphetamine.

Since then, the Central Valley HIDTA has directed more attention to

"The number of super labs has gone down precipitously," Ruzzamenti
said. At the same time, "the meth producers have decided that there is
more money in the cultivation of marijuana, so they have just switched

Nationwide, Walters' office reported, the number of workers testing
positive for methamphetamine has fallen by 45 percent over the past
two years. Investigators likewise reported a 30 percent drop since
2004 in meth lab incidents, which could be anything from discovering
an operational lab to uncovering a lab's dump site.
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake