Pubdate: Wed, 31 Jul 2013
Source: Wall Street Journal (US)
Copyright: 2013 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Author: William Harless


Relaxed Restrictions Pit Central Valley Farmers and Authorities
Against Marijuana Growers

FRESNO, Calif.-Farmers here in the Central Valley, home to one of the
country's richest agricultural regions, are grappling with a mounting
problem: pot.

California's legalization of medical marijuana in 1996 and a crackdown
on illegal marijuana crops in the nearby Sierra Nevada in recent years
have led to an expansion of pot farms in the region's agricultural
flatlands. This trend is alarming many farmers-both from the
standpoint of seeing their region lose productive farmland as well as
from an accompanying rise in violence tied to pot thefts.

"We're sitting in a war zone," said Dennis Simonian, whose family owns
80 acres on the outskirts of Fresno where they grow peaches, grapes
and other produce.

Mr. Simonian, 70 years old, said he noticed a marijuana crop on a
50-acre plot next to his farm three years ago but was afraid to report
it for fear of retaliation. His workers said they saw armed guards
stationed there and apparent pot thieves escaping through his property.

The local sheriff's office raided the pot farm in October 2012, just
before Mr. Simonian began his annual hayrides for schoolchildren. "We
were afraid: armed guards, taking kids through there," he said.
"Anything could happen."

The farmers' predicament comes as domestic marijuana production has
overtaken imports from Mexico, which had been the dominant U.S.
supplier in past decades, according to Bill Ruzzamenti, director of
the federally funded California Central Valley High Intensity Drug
Trafficking Area program.

The national trend of states relaxing pot laws for medicinal or
recreational use has blurred the lines between legitimate and
illegitimate marijuana-growing operations-and has sown conflict with
federal laws that still restrict marijuana use and cultivation. In
Washington state, where residents voted last year to legalize
recreational pot use, federal agents last week raided state
medical-marijuana dispensaries.

Indeed, some of the pot cultivation in the flatlands is taking place
under auspices of California's medical-marijuana program, which
authorizes people who gain a doctor's recommendation to grow up to 99
plants, said Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims. But she said some
people have been using these recommendations for much larger growing

Over the past three years, marijuana growers in the valley have been
planting multiacre crops on leased land. Some grow tens of thousands
of plants, hiding them in rows of bitter melon, tomatoes and other
produce, and guarding fields with trip wires, motion detectors,
shotguns and, occasionally, AK-47s, according to Lt. Rick Ko of the
Fresno County Sheriff's Office. He said farmers of legitimate crops
often complain of marijuana growers sneaking onto their fields and
destroying plants to make room for pot.

"We've got people coming out into the fields cutting out a crop that
we've spent every day of our lives for six months working on," said
Mike O'Banion, a Fresno farmer who found about 11,500 marijuana plants
hidden in about 10 acres of his corn in June.

Mr. O'Banion estimated he lost about $10,000 of his anticipated
harvest after marijuana growers cut down corn to make room for
marijuana. Three years ago, this was hardly a problem, Mr. O'Banion
added. Now, "Just about everybody who grows corn has had something
like this."

Law-enforcement authorities are fighting back. Between March and
September 2012, federal and local law-enforcement agents seized about
500,000 marijuana plants as part of a crackdown called Operation
Mercury, said Lauren Horwood, a spokeswoman with the U.S. attorney's
office in the Eastern District of California.

Here in Fresno County-which produces most of the nation's head lettuce
and raisins-sheriff's officers said they have found about 343
marijuana farms so far this year, up from 72 for all of 2009. Already
this year, officers have eradicated more than 136,000 plants, or more
than five times as many as the 24,000 eliminated in 2003, Lt. Ko said.

Many of the growers in the flatlands, unlike in the mountains, are
Laotian refugees-who fought with Americans in the Vietnam War-drawn to
the higher profits of marijuana to supplement meager farming incomes,
said Richard Molinar, a farm adviser emeritus at the University of
California Cooperative Extension in Fresno.

Somxeng Sysourath, a 63-year-old Laotian immigrant who moved to the
U.S. in 1982, was out in 100-degree weather in Fresno on a Friday last
month, resting in a makeshift cabin in a bitter-melon and marijuana
field when Lt. Ko pulled up and asked if he had a medical
recommendation. Mr. Sysourath showed Lt. Ko two recommendations. In an
interview, Mr. Sysourath said he grows the marijuana to ease his body
aches. Lt. Ko didn't take any action against Mr. Sysourath.

Two days before Lt. Ko found Mr. Sysourath's growing patch, officers
raided a roughly 44-acre marijuana farm after neighbors reported a
gunfight nearby. "We got calls from people who live in this area who
reported vehicles going down the road with shots being fired," Ms.
Mims said. The marijuana on this larger farm was, like Mr.
Sysourath's, planted amid rows of bitter melon. Officers cut trip
wires to get to the roughly 25,000 marijuana plants, which they felled
with machetes.

They found a shotgun and .45 caliber handgun at the farm and motion
detectors installed on posts at the edges of the marijuana rows.
"People are afraid," Ms. Mims said. "We find weapons in nearly every
single one of these."
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