In northern California, pot growers are preparing the ground for another season. Meanwhile, a paramilitary force of local, state and federal agents gets ready to act against them.

(Soundbite of helicopter)

Unidentified Man #1: Okay, when you come down into that first road, don't forget to work your way to the north to that real large cutoff over in the trees.

AMOS: By midsummer, the Marijuana Irradiation Campaign is in full swing, with agents in low-flying choppers scouring the countryside for illegal pot farms. And for a quarter century, local groups have responded by monitoring and reporting in real time on these drug raids. But now there's a debate about whether that should continue. Michael Montgomery has our story.

MICHAEL MONTGOMERY: One characteristic of northern California's pot war is radio broadcasts, like this one.

(Soundbite of radio broadcast)

Unidentified Woman: According to a citizen's observation, at 8:45 a.m. this morning, three helicopters were seen headed from Laytonville towards Bell Springs Road.

MONTGOMERY: The report alert listeners - some of them legal and illegal pot growers the movement of drug agents on the ground and in the air.

(Soundbite of radio broadcast)

Unidentified Woman: To report sightings such as these, you can call the Civil Liberties Monitoring Project at 923...

MONTGOMERY: The reports are a staple on KMUD, a popular community radio station based in southern Humboldt County. They started after the Reagan administration ramped up drug raids in this region, often called California's pot capital.

KMUD program director Marianne Knorzer says the reports are part of the station's commitment to progressive politics, government accountability and public safety.

Ms. MARIANNE KNORZER (KMUD Program Director): We're not actually broadcasting their whole operations. We're just giving the public an awareness that there are 10 trucks heading down a very narrow road with one-lane portions of it, with tight turns. Again, our reports are quite benign.

MONTGOMERY: For years, law enforcement officials have put up with the broadcasts, but times are changing. As more pot is grown legally under California's medical marijuana laws, there's also been an influx of armed traffickers who run huge, illegal growing operations here on federal lands.

Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman worries that the radio reports could tip them off.

Sheriff TOM ALLMAN (Mendocino County, California): I hope they're not going to say: This is my land, don't come here. But what if it did happen? What if somebody did get hurt? Either that citizen or a law enforcement officer. Who would have blood on their hands?

MONTGOMERY: Allman wants the broadcasts to end.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTGOMERY: Recently in downtown Garberville, the sheriff met with representatives from KMUD and the local group that gathers the reports on police operations.

As a man with a matted beard and wizened face played a violin outside the meeting hall, Allman tried to strike a conciliatory note. He acknowledged past abuses by police and expressed a wariness at federal drug operations.

Sheriff ALLMAN: I don't like Black Hawks in my county. I really don't. But if we lost a local, or a state or federal law enforcement officer, when it was determined that a local radio station had broadcast they were coming up the driveway, I believe we're setting ourselves up for something bad.

MONTGOMERY: Allman's appeal to rethink the broadcasts was met with polite skepticism from the audience, including activist Jared Rossman.

Mr. JARED ROSSMAN (Activist): I congratulate law enforcement for responding, because there were a lot of years of intense fear. Have any law enforcement people - local or state or federal - been hurt in these two counties over these 20 years?

Sheriff ALLMAN: Last year was the first year that, in a decade, that we actually took rounds. It was a total Mexican grow, there's no question about it. We're finding notes. We're getting death threats in ways that we never got before. We're seeing a resistance now that we haven't seen, ever.

(Soundbite of radio broadcast)

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #2: You're listening to Redwood Community Radio KMUD...

MONTGOMERY: KMUD occupies a rambling, one-story house just behind a gas station in the tiny hamlet of Redway. In some ways, the station reflects how the debate over marijuana has shifted, with more people accepting the idea of legal, medical pot - including Sheriff Allman, who's a frequent guest on KMUD.

Sheriff ALLMAN: I hope I don't come across as a Cheech and Chong sheriff. But I do say the same things over and over, that everybody has their rights. And the days of cops going in and slash-and-burning are over, and they will never come back.

MONTGOMERY: The cops' grudging respect for legal pot growers is a big reason Allman says KMUD's reports on police operations are an anachronism. Maybe they were justified years ago, but not today. Still, his concern about the broadcasts doesn't mean he's is threatening legal action - at least not yet.

Sheriff ALLMAN: I'm not talking about going to the FCC and saying take away their license. That's not my intent. My intent is to figure out a solution where everybody is satisfied. They don't have to be happy, but they're satisfied with the solution.

MONTGOMERY: But KMUD's Marianne Knorzer says suspicion over the drug war still runs high, and the station is unlikely to drop their reports.

Ms. KNORZER: I can't ever imagine that happening.

MONTGOMERY: Both sides have agreed to keep talking and to reassess the situation after major drug eradication operations wrap up this fall.

For NPR News, I'm Michael Montgomery.

AMOS: Our story was produced as part of a collaboration between member station KQED and the Center for Investigative Reporting's California Watch.

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