Pubdate: Sun, 8 Aug 2010
Source: Mail Tribune, The (Medford, OR)
Copyright: 2010 The Mail Tribune
Author: Paul Fattig


Illegal Marijuana Plantations on Government Lands Are Expanding,
Putting Forest Users at Risk, Say Southern Oregon Law Officers

As the helicopter raced over the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest
Saturday morning, the pilot explained his rationale for flying low and

"We try to fly about 300 feet above the ground," said the Jackson
County Sheriff's deputy. "It's better than at high altitude. This way
you are only a target for a few seconds."

Folks who grow marijuana on federal forestland have been known to take
shots at unwanted visitors, he will tell you.

He and the copilot -- both of whom asked not to be named or
photographed because of the sensitivity of their work -- were flying
U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, to Gold Beach to discuss the
growing marijuana problem on federal land with a team of drug fighters
called Southern Oregon Multi-Agency Marijuana Eradication and
Reclamation -- or SOMMER.

En route, the deputies pointed out sites where patches of marijuana
plants had been confiscated in the mountains overlooking the Applegate
Valley. Most of the raided patches resembled clear cuts from the air.

The pot isn't just on federal land: the helicopter flew over countless
marijuana plants growing behind tall fences adjacent to homes in
Jackson and Josephine counties, which one of the deputies described as
"pseudo medical marijuana" patches. Some of the sites had more than
two dozen plants that look like oversized tomato plants from above.

But the pilot steered clear of what he described as two active "cartel
grows" on federal land farther into the flight, noting he didn't want
to tip off the growers.

A "grow" refers to an illegal marijuana patch. "Cartel" is a reference
to Mexican drug-trafficking organizations which law enforcement
officials say are now involved in growing marijuana on federal land in
the region.

To a man, the seven sheriffs in the group organized by Jackson County
Sheriff Mike Winters urged Walden for more funding to beef up their
departments, which have been hit hard by budget cuts over the years.

Unlike domestic pot operations of years past, many of the plantations
now growing on federal land are operated by Mexican drug-trafficking
organizations who are well-financed and well-armed, the sheriffs said.

"The longer it goes on, the harder it will be for us to overcome,"
Winters told Walden. "They are better funded than us ... There are
more of them than there are of us."

In fact, the U.S. Department of Justice's National Drug Intelligence
Center's 2010 national drug threat assessment released in February
reported that the number of plants removed from public land grew more
than 300 percent from 2004 to 2008, primarily from pot gardens
operated by Mexican drug cartels. The pot growers favor public land
because of its remoteness and because it can't be seized or traced to
an owner, the report said.

A separate 2008 NDIC report on cartel-related drug-trafficking
organizations said the Federation cartel was active in Klamath Falls,
and undetermined cartels were working in Medford and Roseburg.

To consolidate law-enforcement efforts, Winters came up with the
SOMMER project and received a $202,000 federal grant to find,
investigate, remove and clean up marijuana gardens on federal land
this summer. Other counties participating in SOMMER include Josephine,
Curry, Coos, Douglas, Klamath and Lake.

The seven counties pulled out more than 55,000 pot plants from federal
land in 2009, with nearly 30,000 of them coming from Jackson County.

The Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program, the Drug
Enforcement Administration operation that funded SOMMER, reported
earlier this year that pot plantations on federal land in Oregon,
California and Washington are among the biggest producers in the nation.

After observing one eradicated pot plantation after another during the
flight, Walden concluded to no one in particular, "We used to grow

The congressman, who told the sheriffs he would do everything he could
to help their cause, is urging U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack
and U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to increase their efforts to
stop pot growing on federal lands. Vilsack oversees the Forest
Service, while Salazar is in charge of the Bureau of Land Management.

In a separate letter to Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski, Walden asked for
increased assistance from both the Oregon National Guard and the state
police in helping stop the illegal drug operations.

"These growing operations are typically guarded largely by armed
foreign nationals, who pose a direct and dangerous threat to ranchers,
hikers and anyone enjoying our public lands," Walden warned in the

The Justice Department's 2010 national drug threat assessment
concluded the operations "constitute the greatest drug-trafficking
threat" to the nation, he added.

Like Winters, Curry County Sheriff John Bishop told Walden that his
deputies are spread very thin, although working together through
SOMMER has boosted their combined resources.

But overtime and flight time eats into their extremely tight budgets,
Bishop said.

"We are getting into country now where we can't expect our guys to
hike in there in 120-degree weather, cut the plants, haul that out and
then haul out the trash and toxins and all that," he said. "We've got
to have helos, and that is expensive."

Helicopters enable law enforcement officers to hit more "grows" per
week, an activity that averages about three patches a week during this
time of year, Winters told the congressman.

"In the old days, when we used to hike in with the steep terrain and
everything, our guys were wiped out," he said, adding they were lucky
to hit one patch a week.

"And there is so much more dope now," he added. "You aren't dealing
with just a few plants now. You are dealing with grows that have 5,000

In 2009, his department assisted law enforcement officers just across
the state line in Siskiyou County, Calif., raiding a patch which had
200,000 plants, Winters said.

"We've picked up our efficiency and are doing the best we can but we
don't have enough people," Winters said. "Most of us are half-staffed
or losing people."

"Consolidation is absolutely the only way to combat this -- we just
don't have the resources," stressed Josephine County Sheriff Gil Gilbertson.

Klamath County Sheriff Tim Evinger said departments can't hire law
enforcement officers on a seasonal basis to eradicate pot on federal

"These are guys you are pulling off the street to handle this work,"
Evinger said. "So you have to pay them overtime or go short on shifts."

In answer to a question by Walden, all the sheriffs said the lion's
share of the illegal pot patches they are eradicating are on federal
land. They also observed that using federal funds literally ties them
up in red tape.

"The cartels shouldn't be able to do business easier than us," Winters
said at one point.

While the sheriffs were quick to tell Walden the Forest Service and
BLM work with them, they asked for more federal help.

"It's already a collective effort," Winters said. "We need them to
come in and help us a little more. It's their land.

"The problem we get into as county sheriffs, we have to protect our
people from county line to county line," he added. "They recreate,
fish and hunt out there. So we end up having that responsibility
whether we like it or not."

Noting the cartels use money raised from pot to fund other criminal
activities, the sheriffs said they often find gang members and others
manning the illegal patches.

"Now they are going in with weapons and camping," Bishop said. "It is
more dangerous going into gardens now than anytime in the 24 years
I've been in law enforcement." 
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