Pubdate: Fri, 13 Aug 2010
Source: Press Democrat, The (Santa Rosa, CA)
Copyright: 2010 The Press Democrat
Author: Julie Johnson


A Santa Rosa woman's daring venture into an illegal marijuana garden
last Sunday on her northwest Sonoma County property stoked debate over
how best to protect residents and the environment from the drug's

Authorities in Sonoma and Mendocino counties have ramped up efforts to
destroy a flood of illegal marijuana gardens on public and private
lands. But frustration is mounting among landowners, hunters,
environmentalists, law enforcement officials and others about the
proliferation of the plant.

And some landowners are questioning why agents go after the plants but
not the people that grow them.

"The men in the garden are foot soldiers in a large organization,"
Sonoma County Sheriff's Capt. Matt McCaffrey said. "Taking them out of
gardens and putting them into jail, as much as we'd like to do that,
isn't going to solve the problem."

Anger that marijuana growers came back year after year led Carol
Vellutini, a 68-year-old retired teacher, and a group of armed friends
to scout out a marijuana garden on her land. Vellutini ripped up a
handful of plants and destroyed the growers' camp.

"I'm retired, I'm low income, these guys have made millions and all we
get is environmental degradation," Vellutini said.

In Sonoma County, agents destroyed nearly 300,000 marijuana plants
during 40 raids between June 22 and July 31, according to the state's
Campaign Against Marijuana Planting, or CAMP.

That figure is double the number of plants destroyed all of last year.
And that number will grow as deputies continue eradication efforts
until marijuana harvest is over in the fall.

"That just gives you an idea how many more plants are out there,"
McCaffrey said.

Early Thursday, deputies dropped into an illegal garden near Austin
Creek in Cazadero and destroyed about 1,300 plants, McCaffrey said.
The landowner called the sheriff's office to report finding a few
plants and what officers found was much larger than expected, said
Sgt. Chris Bertoli, who runs the sheriff's narcotics unit.

The sheriff's office drug unit has increased its efforts despite
having a tighter budget. One narcotics deputy position was lost during
recent budget cuts.

But just as eradication efforts have grown, so too have growers'
efforts to cultivate marijuana in clandestine gardens, authorities

"It's success in numbers," Bertoli said. "Put in 10 and if I get five,
I'm good."

Private land in the county's northern area is rife with illegal
gardens, scaring landowners away from areas of their properties. About
half of the plants eradicated by CAMP this season were found on
private property, according to a state report.

Three suspected growers were shot and killed after they threatened
officers during this summer's raids in Napa, Lake and Mendocino

Officers face increasing risks when they enter the rugged terrain
where gardens are found and face the gardens' armed guards.

"The people in these gardens have been living there for weeks,"
McCaffrey said. "They're very intimate with the area. They can hear us
approaching. We're already at a huge disadvantage."

Sonoma County officials warn landowners away from such bold action as
Vellutini took.

"There's no doubt that illegal growing represents a really huge threat
to both public safety and the environment," county Supervisor Shirlee
Zane said. "But I strongly urge property owners to work with law
enforcement rather than risking their own lives."

Zane said she was confident in the county's efforts this year to
address the problem.

"It's a growing threat," Zane said. "Given the resources that we have,
we're making a profound effort."

Supervisor Paul Kelley, who runs the district that includes
Vallutini's property, didn't return phone calls seeking comment.

Mendocino County sheriff's deputies are making more efforts to arrest
the drug's low-level cultivators in conjunction with their eradication
efforts, Capt. Kurt Smallcomb said.

Making arrests requires covert operations that take more time and more
deputies, he said. CAMP agents in Mendocino have arrested one
suspected grower so far this summer.

It's slow work, but it's important, he said.

"If all we do are eradications, they're going to keep coming,"
Smallcomb said. "If we do eradications and haul people off to jail, it
could be a deterrent."

Concerned Mendocino County citizens declared a state of emergency last
week and asked the county's Board of Supervisors to bring in the
National Guard.

Authorities in Mendocino and Sonoma counties have said they'd welcome
outside support.

"We'll take whoever we can get to help us," McCaffrey said.
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