Pubdate: Sun, 23 Aug 2009
Source: Ventura County Star (CA)
Copyright: 2009 The E.W. Scripps Co.
Author: John Scheibe


Officials Finding More Backcountry Pot Plots

Last week's announcement that the 89,000-acre La Brea fire in northern
Santa Barbara County might have been sparked by a Mexican cartel's
marijuana-growing operation was little surprise to local law
enforcement agents who are finding record amounts of pot on public

Agents from the U.S. Forest Service and Santa Barbara County Sheriff's
Department suspect the fire in Los Padres National Forest, which so
far has cost more than $20 million to fight, was caused by an Aug. 8
cooking fire at a large marijuana garden 21 miles east of Santa Maria.

Investigators say they found 30,000 marijuana plants and an AK-47
assault rifle in a remote canyon near where the wildfire started. They
also found piles of garbage, propane tanks and a charred stove.

The incident comes as narcotics agents with the Ventura County
Sheriff's Department expect to seize a record amount of marijuana
plants this year.

The current record for the county -- 58,000 plants -- was set last year,
authorities said. "We're probably going to see a lot more this year,"
possibly twice as much, said Sgt. Mike Horne of the department's
narcotics bureau.

Officials believe the problem is getting worse partly because of an
increase in the influence of Mexican drug cartels. People working for
large drug-trafficking organizations plant marijuana in the county's
remote canyons and forests each year, with the growing season
typically lasting from April to October, Horne said. In response,
authorities take to the air in helicopters to spot marijuana gardens.

On July 8, for example, agents from the Sheriff's Department, state
Department of Fish and Game, U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Drug
Enforcement Agency destroyed three large gardens in Los Padres
containing a combined 17,800 marijuana plants.

Some Advice for Hikers

The gardens are a danger to hikers, because growers often booby-trap
them or even directly confront hikers, Horne said. Garden workers are
often supervised by armed foremen, he said.

"If you run across a garden, the best thing to do is to get out of
there as quickly and quietly as possible," Horne said, then contact
authorities when in a safe place.

Workers typically cut the tops off the plants, to harvest the most
potent buds. Such pruning also keeps the plants from growing too tall,
Horne said, making them harder to spot.

Growers also try not to place the young plants in straight rows --
another thing easier to spot -- but "more often than not, they fail in
some way," Horne said. The human mind requires some sort of order,
foiling their attempts at randomness during planting, he said.

Horne said growers typically run plastic irrigation pipes and drips to
the plants. "If you see irrigation equipment out in the middle of the
forest, it's very likely there's a garden nearby," Horne said.

Other signs of an illicit growing operation include fertilizers and
pesticides, shovels, picks and other gardening equipment.

Workers often clear away brush and build terraces for the gardens,
Horne said. The operations can cause soil erosion, he said, as well as
other environmental damage, including runoff of pesticides and waste
from open latrines.

Propane Gets Packed In

Growers prefer to use propane for cooking, he said, because
wood-burning fires create smoke and are easier to spot. Horne said
he's found many abandoned camps littered with propane tanks.

Marijuana is not only grown in the forest gardens but also dried and
packed there, Horne said. It's then carried out, sometimes many miles
over primitive trails, to a waiting vehicle, he said.

Firearms and ammunition have been left behind in almost every garden
Horne and his agents have found, he said. "With the potential profit
being in the millions of dollars, growers are becoming bolder in
protecting their investments," he said.

Michael Meyer, a 61-year-old Ventura man who has used medicinal
marijuana for years to cope with numerous ailments, said that unlike
much of the marijuana cultivated in Northern California areas like
Humboldt County, the cannabis grown in Los Padres tends to be lower
quality. That's partly because plants in larger operations don't
receive as much care as those in a smaller, home-grown garden, he said.

"This is pot that is going to supply the lower end of the recreational
marijuana market," Meyer said. 
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