Pubdate: Wed, 28 Aug 2013
Source: Times-Standard (Eureka, CA)
Copyright: 2013 Times-Standard
Author: Thadeus Greenson


Humboldt County Sheriff Mike Downey has been on the front lines of 
the war on drugs for the better part of three decades, but he said 
Tuesday that it might be time for part of that war to end.

"I was never a big fan of legalization (of marijuana), but right now 
I think that's the most logical way to end this drug war," Downey 
said. "We are not winning."

Downey's comments came during a meeting he organized with local 
stakeholders and North Coast Congressman Jared Huffman to discuss 
marijuana enforcement issues in Humboldt County and, specifically, 
the widespread environmental damage illicit marijuana grow operations 
are causing. While much of the meeting was spent lamenting the 
proliferation of growing operations and the lack of resources and 
funding various agencies have to eradicate illegal crops and clean up 
the damage left in their wake, Huffman and Downey seemed to point to 
legalization as the path forward.

Huffman said he's seen first-hand the environmental devastation 
caused by some marijuana grow operations, with stream diversions, 
heavy pesticide and fertilizer use, clear cutting and soil grading 
all having large cumulative impacts. He drew a parallel to what was 
seen in the hills of Kentucky during the Prohibition Era, when 
illegal stills and violence were rampant.

"That's what prohibition brought," he said. "Eventually, we got rid 
of prohibition and with that went the campfires and stills in the 
woods. We need to re-learn that lesson."

But the congressman said he is part of a growing coalition in 
Washington of dozens of legislators who now feel rethinking drug 
enforcement policies at the federal level is the best path forward. 
And, Huffman said, that coalition includes some unusual bedfellows, 
including liberal Democrats and Tea Party Republicans, all of whom 
are moved by the environmental degradation aspect of the issue.

"The one thing I think everyone can agree on is that the people who 
are trespassing on public lands and committing these kinds of 
environmental atrocities -- we need to throw the book at them," said 
Huffman, who recently introduced bi-partisan legislation to stiffen 
penalties for people caught at trespass grow operations with illegal 
water diversions, timber harvests or that use high-powered pesticides.

In opening the meeting -- which was attended by folks from local 
timber companies, local biologists, and representatives from the U.S. 
Bureau of Land Management, the California Department of Fish and 
Wildlife and the Hoopa Valley Tribe -- Downey offered a brief 
overview of the issue in Humboldt County. In recent years, Downey 
said his department has noticed an increase in cultivation activity 
and a decrease in grow operations that would be considered valid 
under state medical marijuana laws. Sheriff's Office Sgt. Brian 
Quennell spent some time last year with Google Earth, Downey said, 
and was able to identify more than 4,100 marijuana gardens in the county.

The answers, Downey said, are increased funding and an increased 
commitment. Or, he said, the federal government needs to choose a new 
path forward.

"We have to have some kind of national referendum on what we're going 
to do with this issue or increase enforcement," Downey said. "This 
middle of the road isn't working."

Local ecologist Mourad Gabriel, who has studied the impacts of 
pesticides from illicit marijuana grows on local animal populations, 
said the incredible amounts of rodenticides and pesticides being 
found at these growing operations is an issue that needs attention 
and warrants further studies, noting he is very concerned about the 
prospect of the rodenticides wiping out prey species that are a 
crucial part of the food chain.

Gabriel advocated what he called the "trident approach" to tackling 
grow operations. The approach, he said, would see a garden site 
eradicated, then thoroughly documented to record and study what was 
found on the land and, finally, reclaimed and reforested.

"But all three of these apparatus, in my opinion, are underfunded," 
Gabriel said.

Huffman said he agrees "100 percent," but warned that fiscal spigots 
aren't likely to flow open in the near future.

"I'll try (to get additional funding) but you know the fiscal climate 
I'm going to go back to in Washington in about a week," Huffman said, 
noting that the U.S. Forest Service recently announced it has run out 
of money to fight wildfires. "We have to work on a broader policy."

Eric Mann, who handles security for Humboldt Redwood Company, said 
that, in the meantime, biologists, foresters and watershed experts 
working on timber lands remain in harm's way.

"They're on the ground by themselves working in these areas -- we ask 
these folks to be out there," he said, adding that, increasingly, 
folks manning these large, trespass growing operations are heavily 
armed. "It's not your idiot brother who is out there growing pot. 
It's dangerous people with guns."

Huffman said he understand that, noting that employees of state and 
federal environmental agencies have expressed safety concerns 
associated with investigating the issues surrounding these grow 
sites. He said he'll work on increased funding to provide scientists 
the security they need to do the important research needed to 
document the environmental issues.

"We can't just withdraw and retreat," he said.

Scott Bauer of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife said 
grows on private lands in Humboldt County are also an enormous 
environmental issue, noting that he's received word of 25 creeks in 
the county that have been diverted to irrigate marijuana crops. 
That's 25 dry creeks that used to provide important habitat to salmon 
and steelhead, he said. Huffman agreed he'd like to see more 
enforcement on that end of things as well, noting that grows don't 
have to be on public lands to impact public resources.

After this morning's meeting, Huffman was scheduled to take an aerial 
tour of the county with journalist and former CBS Evening News anchor 
Dan Rather and Sheriff's Office personnel to see the proliferation of 
illicit grow operations. The congressman said national media 
attention on the issue will be a key component to any push for a 
federal policy change on the issue.

Downey made clear the current situation is untenable, noting that the 
environmental destruction caused by this plant is imperiling the 
forests, streams and watersheds so many Humboldt residents cherish.

"It's being destroyed right in front of out eyes," he said.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom