Pubdate: Mon, 12 Dec 2011
Source: San Francisco Examiner (CA)
Copyright: 2011 David Downs
Author: David Downs


Cmdr. Marc Alcantara of the San Mateo County Narcotics Task Force
showed a visitor photographs of marijuana bales being hoisted by
helicopters onto pickup trucks. This year, task force deputies removed
5,070 plants worth $1.5 million from deep in the county's Skyline
Ridge Open Space Preserve just south of San Francisco.

Rangers, hikers and ranchers had found the operation and called in the
authorities, Alcantara said. The pot growers were tapping mountain
springs to feed irrigation lines linked to "remarkably well-kept"
plants. By the time deputies arrived, all that was left were the
plants, food, hammocks, sleeping bags and a .22-caliber rifle.

"This is something we encounter every year," he said. "The difference
is we had air resources from the state."

The bushy weeds are out there every season. The biggest variable
regarding how much is detected is what kind of federal and state
funding is directed to their eradication.

This growing season, Alcantara's task force removed some 13,404 plants
from Peninsula woodlands, up more than 400 percent from the prior year.

Massive amounts of marijuana are harvested on public lands in
California, from the Peninsula's San Francisco watershed to various
state parks and national forests around California. And no one can say
how many acres are affected.

National Guard estimates run as high as 1 million acres of national
forest, said Sylvia Longmire, author of the 2011 book "Cartel." Yet
the RAND Corp., an independent think tank, says that it may take as
little as 4,400 acres of farmland to meet annual U.S. demand for
marijuana, based on their estimates of total consumption.

Whatever the amount, these forest growing operations do quite a bit of
environmental damage. Operation Full Court Press, a multiagency sweep
of Mendocino National Forest this fall, removed 26 tons of trash, 40
miles of irrigation pipe and 260 pounds of pesticide and

"It's really depressing," Longmire said. "The environmental damage is

But barring the funds to deploy a small army, the growers will
probably be back bigger than ever next year. For instance, federal and
state budget cuts have all but ended future operations of the federal
Campaign Against Marijuana Planting.

"People are in shock," Longmire said. "They have measly budgets for
dealing with this."

But even as such outdoor growing operations continue largely
unchecked, the indoor growing industry is now believed to out-compete
forest farmers and even cross-border drug trafficking organizations
for most California cannabis customers.

High-quality medical marijuana grown indoors and locally now dominates
the shelves of Bay Area cannabis dispensaries, according to operators,
growers and patient groups. Most dispensary operators say they carry
zero, or very little, outdoor-grown product - mostly because patients
prefer the look, smell, taste and effects of indoor marijuana.

Longmire says the high-priced medical cannabis dispensary market has
separated itself from the lower end. Tons of low-quality outdoor
marijuana is still grown illegally in the woodlands of California each
year, but most of it is destined for export to states east of
California, experts say. Fact is, such marijuana can't find a market

"The Mexican grows in the U.S. are like the Walmart of marijuana,"
Longmire said. "It's mass-produced, it's of much-poorer quality, it's
much cheaper and there's a lot more of it."

The same is apparently true of Mexican marijuana. According to a paper
by the RAND Corp., "We believe that Mexico's market share is
negligible in the higher-priced market segment because the great bulk
of Mexico's exports are of commercial-grade marijuana."

The small amount of outdoor cannabis sold by dispensaries tends to
come from expert gardeners in small Northern California plots
operating under the uncertain legal protections of Proposition 215,
the California initiative that legalized medical marijuana under state
but not federal law.

On the shelves at places such as the San Francisco Patient Resource
Center in the South of Market area, the outdoor pot has lab-tested as
strong as what is grown indoors, and priced low for cost-conscious
patients. The SPARC "sungrown" will run $200 per ounce, versus $360
for indoor product.

However, competition with indoor pot is so fierce that outdoor growers
are turning to greenhouses and paying labs and certification companies
to boost their products' appeal.

Steep Hill Labs of Oakland tests medical cannabis for dozens of
dispensaries across the state, analyzing samples for potency and
pathogens before it is sold. Steep Hill has a booming medical cannabis
certification program called SafeCannabis that consists of routine
inspections and tests, as well as standardized packaging and labeling.

Just to get their products inside a dispensary door, outdoor growers
must spend $20,000 on certifications and packaging for 100 pounds of
medical cannabis, said Steep Hill co-founder Addison DeMoura.

"I think it is one of the best years I've seen for the outdoor stuff,"
DeMoura said. "A lot of guys have put up some good greenhouses and
it's showing when it comes to market. ... I've never heard on the
news, 'Mexican cartels care about who consumes their product and pay
to get it tested.'"

And yet, because the boom in indoor growing has driven down prices,
that has caused growers to cultivate even more plants out of doors,
law enforcement officials say. And while many people may not think of
San Mateo County as very wild, parts of it are remote enough to
attract some shady entrepreneurs.

"It's a lot of space," Alcantara said. "People don't realize it, but
we're only on about maybe 20 percent of the land."

Identity of forces behind illicit pot fields still

Despite the success of this year's marijuana eradication campaign,
Cmdr. Marc Alcantara of the San Mateo County Narcotics Task Force
can't say who was doing the growing.

That's because his team rarely, if ever, makes arrests during
eradication efforts.

Some experts say that Mexican drug cartels or even the Russian Mafia
have ties to outdoor farms. But Alcantara, a 26-year task force
veteran, is more circumspect than many of his peers.

"Regarding the cartels, we're not going there," he said. "Not unless
we catch somebody."

So just who's responsible for all the marijuana grown on public lands
in California remains murky.

Growers are rarely caught. When they are, they tend to be undocumented
Hispanic immigrants - just like other California farmworkers.

"Typically, these people don't know a whole lot," said Michelle
Gregory, of the state Department of Justice's Campaign Against
Marijuana Planting.

Consider Operation Full Court Press, a multiagency sweep of Mendocino
National Forest this fall that yielded 632,058 plants, 1,986 pounds of
processed marijuana, $28,031 in cash, 40 weapons and the arrests of
159 individuals.

"Ninety percent of the arrested were Hispanic, and about 70 percent
illegals," wrote Sally Fairchild, deputy director for the Northern
California High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.

But just who was employing these workers remains unknown.

"When we arrest the guys, it's some poor mope that's a gardener,"
Fairchild said. "How do you determine who's paying the guy?"

Sylvia Longmire - an intelligence analyst, security consultant and
author of the 2011 book "Cartel" - said cartels have operated in the
national forests since at least 2003.

"The National Guard believes 90 percent of outdoor grows are being run
by or are associated with the cartels, but because of that lack of
intelligence, they can't say what particular group is associated with
what particular cartel," she said. "They have no way of discerning

Humboldt County Sheriff Michael Downey said his department has
arrested not only Americans but Australian, Bulgarian, French, Mexican
and Thai nationals involved in huge cultivation operations this year.
They're moving deeper into the national forest and private timber holdings.

"It definitely was an eye-opener for us as to the scope of what we're
seeing now. We are truly in a position where astronomical amounts of
marijuana are being grown," he said. "I wouldn't be surprised if we
have some Russian Mafia involved. ... We're international."


San Mateo County Narcotics Task Force totals

13,404: 2011 total plants seized

3,218: 2010 total plants seized

Operation Full Court Press 2011 stats

632,058: Plants seized

117: Grow sites eradicated

1,986: Processed plants seized

$18,031: Cash seized

40: Weapons seized

159: Individuals arrested

35: Sites reclaimed

26: Tons of trash removed

80: Propane tanks removed

40: Miles of irrigation pipe removed

260: Pounds of pesticides and rodenticides removed

Campaign Against Marijuana Planting 2011 stats

2.234 million: Plants seized

$5.5 billion: Estimated wholesale value

47: Arrests

72: Weapons seized

5,042: Pounds of processed marijuana seized 
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MAP posted-by: Jo-D