Pubdate: Sat, 29 Sep 2012
Source: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)
Copyright: 2012 Hearst Communications Inc.
Author: Andrew Becker


As California's outdoor marijuana growing season nears its end for 
2012, drug officials are reporting a sharp decline in crop seizures 
for the second year in a row.

The latest figures show that local, state and federal law enforcement 
agencies are on track to eradicate an estimated 1.5 million plants 
from outdoor gardens - mostly on public land - down from a decade 
high of about 7.3 million plants in 2009. This year's seizure total 
would be the lowest since 2004, when a little more than 1.1 million 
plants were eradicated, according to federal Drug Enforcement 
Administration statistics.

Some attribute the drop to a federal crackdown on medical marijuana 
dispensaries and illegal cultivation on public land, along with 
political losses in California such as the defeat in 2010 of 
prolegalization Proposition 19. At the same time, fewer 
counternarcotics teams hunted for California pot this year because of 
the elimination of a 3-decade-old state eradication program.

Others say growers have retreated to smaller plots on private land 
and gone back underground. They also point to a glut of marijuana 
that depressed wholesale prices and burst the state's "green rush" to 
capitalize on relaxed attitudes toward the drug.

Trending down

Tommy LaNier, director of the National Marijuana Initiative, a 
program funded by the White House Office of National Drug Control 
Policy, said law enforcement officers and agents had a hard time 
locating marijuana patches this season, even though they spent the 
same amount of flight time as in years past searching for plants.

"There's a significant down trend in cultivation activities," LaNier 
said. "There's been a huge impact because of what we've been doing 
the last six years."

A confluence of other factors might have contributed to fewer plants 
this year, including improved intelligence gathering and 
investigative efforts, more tips about illicit marijuana gardens from 
the public, and concerted efforts to prosecute growers, LaNier said.

He also highlighted the use of intelligence analysts and informants 
to find marijuana gardens on public land. The U.S. intelligence 
community has helped track money that moves across the southern 
border and people who are entering the United States from Mexico who 
are involved in cultivation, he said.

While more federal attention has turned toward California's pot 
industry, the state's 28-year-old Campaign Against Marijuana Planting 
did not operate this year. Funding for the program was slashed in 
2011, and Gov. Jerry Brown effectively shuttered the state Department 
of Justice's Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement, which oversaw the effort 
and eradication teams in five regions in the state.

In the absence of state funding, a consortium of federal agencies 
banded together to support the Cannabis Eradication and Reclamation 
Team, as the new program is known. State Justice Department 
spokeswoman Michelle Gregory said that as of last week, the program 
had destroyed 959,144 plants from 215 sites, more than half of which 
were found on national forestland.

Growers adjusting?

Dale Gieringer, the California coordinator of the National 
Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said that other than 
for a brief period in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the annual 
eradication campaign didn't have a huge effect on marijuana 
production. The same might be true of recent efforts, he said.

Growers have improved their techniques to avoid detection, with some 
turning to smaller patches and even using Google Earth as a tool to 
help improve concealment, Gieringer said.

"All I can look at are prices and availability on the ground, and I 
really haven't seen any impact," he said.

As law enforcement has squeezed growers on public land, officials 
have seen them migrate elsewhere, often to where they can exploit the 
state's permissive medical marijuana law, officials said.

"There is other stuff that is happening," said William Ruzzamenti, 
who directs the federally funded Central Valley High Intensity Drug 
Trafficking Area. "My honest opinion is that there was just as much 
growing this year as last year. But we're just not getting it."

Moving operations

Increasingly, growers are moving out of state, to places such as 
Nevada, southern Utah, Wisconsin and North Carolina, often growing 
closer to drug markets, he said.

In California, Ruzzamenti said, there's been a transition from 
illicit gardens on public land in the Sierra to the valley floor in 
Fresno and Tulare counties and remote plots on private land in 
Northern California, where growers operate "under the pretenses of 
medical marijuana."

For years, Trinity County, Humboldt County's eastern neighbor, has 
attracted growers because of its sparse population and amenable 
climate. Local law enforcement says the region has seen a recent 
explosion in marijuana gardens on private land.

"The number of private grows we have is astronomical. It's a huge 
problem," said Chris Compton, a detective with the Trinity County 
Sheriff's Department. "It's not a secret what we have going up here."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom