Pubdate: Sat, 17 Oct 2009
Source: Union Democrat, The (Sonora, CA)
Page: Front Page, top of page, feature article
Copyright: 2009 Western Communications, Inc
Author: James Damschroder, The Union Democrat
Bookmark: (Marijuana - California)


Despite Efforts, Cultivation on the Rise

A marijuana farm discovered and
destroyed in July in the Belleview area of Tuolumne County was an all
too normal sight.

The garden was divided into three large plots slanting down a
hillside-- linked by a network of tubes sucking water from a makeshift
pool lined with blue tarps.

There were two camping areas, nestled between the gardens and
bordering manzanita trees, littered with Spanish-language comic books,
cookware, toilet paper, Mexican food products, a torn tarp serving as
a canopy for dirt-caked sleeping bags, and the usual environmentally
hazardous products: bags of fertilizer, mole traps and insect poison.

There was no sign of the people -- most likely "Mexican nationals"
working for a "Mexican drug cartel," officials said -- tending nearly
10,000 marijuana plants worth an estimated $21 million.

As the routine goes, law enforcement officials from several law
enforcement agencies ripped the plants from the ground, threw them
into piles, bundled them together by large nets and hooked the bundles
to a long line draped from a helicopter hovering above.

The plants were then flown out to be incinerated.

"It's pretty sad," said Ryan Pontecorvo, regional operational
commander for the Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement's Campaign Against
Marijuana Planting (CAMP), while looking at the mess left behind.

The bust represented only a fraction of the plants pulled from
Tuolumne and Calaveras counties this year. Law enforcement officials
have yanked more than 200,000 plants in Tuolumne County -- double the
previous record, set last year -- and more than 26,000 plants from
Calaveras County.

In total, CAMP -- which aids local agencies with manpower and
equipment, including helicopters -- this year has seized more than 4.4
million plants statewide, compared to last year's record of 2.9 million.

The rising volume of marijuana being grown poses problems for law
enforcement, but so does the evolving nature of the clandestine trade,
which today involves hundreds of operators rather than a few big cartels.

"The amount of illegally cultivated marijuana is obviously on the
rise," said Sgt. Craig Davis, Tuolumne Narcotic Team commander.

Despite proposed solutions to the problem -- ranging from legalizing
pot, to throwing more money at eradication and investigations, to
harsher penalties for those who are caught -- there's no fool-proof
answer to ending the epidemic.

The Gardens

The one non-typical characteristic of the Belleview-area bust was the

"It's rare for it to be so close to residential neighborhoods," said
A.J. Ford, spokesman for the Tuolumne County Sheriff's Office.

But the garden illustrates that marijuana farmers will set up just
about anywhere these days.

"As they adopt their techniques to our techniques, they change up
their tactics to sneak it by us," said Diana Nichols, a special agent
with the Stanislaus National Forest. "When I first started, they were
only growing at elevations around 4,000 feet. We found a garden in the
Inyo National Forest at over 9,000 feet. They've found gardens here
(Stanislaus Forest) that were over 7,000 feet."

Sometimes growers use rural private property, as in Belleview,
unbeknownst to the land owner. But most of the gardens are found on
U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service or Bureau of Land
Management land.

It's problematic from the public safety standpoint, and also an
environmental one.

"Pictures cannot capture what goes on out there," Nichols said.
"Environmentally, it's a mess."

Grow sites tear up the ground, use highly-toxic chemicals and leave
behind months worth of trash in remote areas where water quality and
wildlife are affected, officials say.

Even when gardens are raided, the damage to the environment has
already been done.

"They're destroying our public lands," said Kevin Mayer, special agent
with the Sierra National Forest. "They're killing wildlife -- mountain
lions, bear and deer. They're killing fish. They're poisoning our
water system."

Mayer estimates that during the growing season-- typically between
spring and fall -- there are between 2,000 and 5,000 people living on
public lands growing marijuana in California.

After the plants are eradicated, agents do their best to clean up the
damage, but it's a tall task-- especially because most gardens are in
very remote areas of the forest.

"Everything they pack in, we have to pack out," Mayer said. "It all
needs to get brought out."

The Growers

Many times, law enforcement agents won't try to nab the often-armed
men protecting the marijuana gardens because of potential lethal dangers.

Also, they are hard to catch, agents say.

For example, marijuana growers evaded law enforcement agents from the
U.S. Forest Service and TNT in an August sting on a grow site near
Cherry Lake.

At the site, more than 5,000 plants, 100 pounds of trimmed and
processed marijuana and three firearms were found.

"At the first sign of danger, they're like rabbits," Nichols said.
"They know all the tiny holes in the forest. So, a lot of times, it's
hit or miss. We have caught them."

In one of the few cases where arrests were made, Fidencio Castro-Meza,
29, and Jose Guadalupe Castro-Meza, 35, in September were caught and
charged with felony marijuana growing charges after community members
tipped off agents to a grow site in Groveland. The bust also yielded
799 plants and a high-caliber rifle.

As marijuana gardens become more prevalent, federal investigators are
seeing a shift in who's behind the operations and how much men like
Fidencio and Jose Castro-Meza might know about the larger operations.

At one point, about a decade ago, the gardens were mostly controlled
by a handful of influential Mexican-national drug cartels, said Brent
Wood, lead investigator with the Bureau of Narcotics

For instance, in 2001, after years of investigation, nine members of
the Mexico-based Magana drug cartel pleaded guilty in federal court to
growing large marijuana gardens in the Stanislaus, Sierra, Sequoia and
Mendocino national forests.

The cartel was similar to the type movies paint -- rich and
influential. Investigators said the family owned lavish resorts, among
other businesses, all over Mexico.

"The year after we did that, there was a substantial drop in the
amount of marijuana found in the forests," Wood said. "But soon after,
it went right back up."

Nowadays, Wood said, it's no longer a few influential Mexican drug
cartels, like the Magana family, behind the massive amount of
marijuana growing in California.

"There's hundreds and hundreds of smaller groups now," Wood

The groups are still predominately Mexican Americans or Mexican
nationals, Wood said.

Also, the armed men protecting the gardens are no longer thought of as
hired hands that know little about the operation, but trusted
associates, even family members, Wood said.

"What we've learned listening to their lines is that the people in the
forest are not the guys you pick up on the street corner but trusted
members of the organization," he said.

"Closer to harvest time, they might get the workers from the

Once the crop is harvested, dragged out of the forest, dried and
processed, it's shipped all over the nation.

"The distribution is pretty quick," Wood said. "Once it's dried, it
goes all over the place. We've followed it to Chicago and New York.
And it's also local. They do amazing things. They'll trade marijuana
for cars."

Futile Fight?

Many have opinions on how to stop the growing marijuana epidemic in

The most debated is legalization. The theory goes that legalizing it
would kill the black market for the drug.

Marijuana advocates across the state are currently gathering
signatures to get as many as three marijuana legalization measures on
the 2010 state ballot.

And some polls show that voters would support lifting the state's pot
prohibition-- backing legalization advocates who say it could cure many
of the state's financial woes.

"Law enforcement officers point to a 2,000 percent increase in plants
seized in the past decade and hold that as a sign of success," said
Aaron Smith, the policy director of Marijuana Policy Project. "But
these efforts have no effect on the widespread prevalence of marijuana
in our society.

"At a time when California is facing drastic budget cuts, it's beyond
irresponsible to continue this costly and ineffective policy," Smith
added. "The only way to get these illegal grows out of our parks and
neighborhoods is by ending marijuana prohibition and regulating the
drug's production. After all, you don't see wine producers sneaking
into forests and setting up covert vineyards."

Many in law enforcement say the idea is ludicrous.

"You have a drug whose potency has increased five to 10 times of what
it use to be," said Nichols. "It is really becoming a true gateway

Law enforcement officials say that more funding, stricter laws, and
broader use of federal laws in prosecuting cases could begin to clean
up the problem.

"State charges are 18 months in a best-case scenario," said Mayer.
"Ultimately, we don't have the resources."

"If it's state charges, it's absolutely a waste of time," Wood agreed.
"Why make the effort?"

Wood said he currently has a team of eight investigating marijuana
growing networks. "We have an average of 25 investigations going at
once," he said. "Five of them we can maybe get our hands on."
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake