California Officials Target Big Marijuana Growers Since medical marijuana was legalized in California, the illegal side of the business has also exploded. The state is spending millions of dollars to search for and wipe out as much illegal marijuana as they can find. One special agent says the state is targeting the big growers backed by drug cartels of "all races, creeds, colors."
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California Officials Target Big Marijuana Growers

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California Officials Target Big Marijuana Growers

California Officials Target Big Marijuana Growers

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

These days in California, medical marijuana clinics are popping up like, well, like weeds. In Los Angeles alone, there are nearly a thousand places where, if you have a doctor's note, you can legally buy pot. And illegal marijuana is thriving California as well. Authorities say it's partly because all those pot clinics have boosted the demand. That means the state spends millions of dollars trying to wipe out a plant that has, for some purposes, sanctioned.

NPR's Mandalit Del Barco has the second of two stories on pot in California.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO: For decades, a task force of lawmen has been parachuting into some of the most rugged sections of California. For a week at a time, they search for and destroy as much pot as they can find. They call it the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting, or CAMP for short.

(Soundbite of a helicopter)

DEL BARCO: On this day, we're with them in Northern California in Humboldt County, in a helicopter hunting for cannabis.

It really takes a trained eye to see those plants because they're hidden in the trees.

We circle over a dense stand of redwood trees, looking for clandestine marijuana patches. Sure enough, we see some. Then we head for the landing zone.

Retired Humboldt County sheriff lieutenant Steve Cobine says cultivating cannabis is now a big business in state forests and private timberlands.

Mr. STEVE COBINE (Retired Sheriff, Humboldt County Sheriff's Office): It has a distinctive color � emerald green. You can't miss it.

DEL BARCO: We hike to one of the places we spotted from the air, clearing a path with machetes.

So we're walking through this forest and every few feet, you see another marijuana plant. There are rat traps set and poison to keep away any rodents from eating the plants. And there are long drip lines � lines of water that can water these plants.

Deputy Cobine says pot growers will camp out at illegal sites like this for months to secretly cultivate and harvest marijuana. Sometimes, they try to scare people away with mannequins.

Mr. COBINE: Or scarecrows wearing clothing. It wakes you up because you're out there, you know? You never think you're alone. At least I know I don't.

DEL BARCO: You mean there could be somebody out there watching us right now?

Mr. COBINE: Oh, absolutely.

DEL BARCO: We could be surrounded right now by marijuana growers?

Mr. COBINE: Yeah, they run off and hide in the brush. They don't run far. Would you run very far in this? You can't.

DEL BARCO: Cobine says CAMP rarely catches anyone in the act. In fact, the growers are often armed, and have been known to shoot at anyone who comes near.

Mr. COBINE: We found three last week in a garden: One was a nine-millimeter Beretta, one was a government .45 automatic pistol, and I forget what the guy said the other one was but it's another pistol.

DEL BARCO: Many of these illegal marijuana fields are the work of major drug cartels, says California narcotics agent Jack Nelsen.

Mr. JACK NELSEN (Special Agent, Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement): It's all races, all creeds, all colors. It doesn't matter who you are, there's -everyone is growing. We've got it all going on.

DEL BARCO: He says Asian drug trafficking organizations grow marijuana in national forests, and Hispanic operations grow mostly on private lands. Others grow marijuana in illegal indoor greenhouses.

Mr. NELSEN: We used to call them guerrilla grows, the like white boy grows. Those are generally smaller, very high-quality large plants, not thousands of plants like a Hispanic drug trafficking operation. We've got upwards of a hundred thousand. Hispanic grows sometimes look like cornfields. But the Asian drug trafficking organizations, they tend to plant on very, very steep areas.

DEL BARCO: Nelsen says the marijuana business exploded after California voters passed Proposition 215. That law allows people to use medical marijuana with a doctor's recommendation - what's known as a 215 card.

Mr. NELSEN: Everyone has got a medical recommendation in Humboldt County. You know, it's the Humboldt County insurance policy. I mean, you can carry three pounds in your car with a recommendation, they think.

DEL BARCO: The local and state legalities are quite confusing, says Nelsen.

Mr. NELSEN: Because of the loopholes and, especially in this county, how liberal the view is on how many plants you can have and how much marijuana you can have in your house, and we've become an area that many out-of-staters flock to. I call it the green rush.

DEL BARCO: Local police say they don't have time or resources to arrest every small-time marijuana grower in Humboldt.

District Attorney Paul Gallegos says he'd rather go after the bigger growers.

Mr. PAUL GALLEGOS (District Attorney, Humboldt County): Our priority is business people. You know, if you're growing for yourself, really, now, that's against the law. But why am I interested in that? Do I still have to enforce our laws? But you're low priority for me.

DEL BARCO: Humboldt's Sheriff Gary Philp says it's difficult to track down the larger growers, the cartels.

Mr. GARY PHILP (Sheriff, Humboldt County Sheriff's Office): What are we going to do if we arrest two or three people that are out there tending a garden that really aren't the kingpins of it, you know? And they're just stuck there. They don't know whose garden it really is.

DEL BARCO: Despite Humboldt being one of the biggest marijuana suppliers in the country, Sheriff Philp says he can only afford to assign one full-time deputy in charge of drug enforcement.

Mr. PHILP: And with the limited resources, you know, we're doing the best we can. But, you know, a county such as ours, you know, we're 3,500 square miles. It's a very remote, rugged area and we're not under any misconception that we're just out there getting all that stuff. I mean, we're making a dent. But, yeah, I mean, it's difficult.

(Soundbite of brush and snipping)

Mr. COBINE: Cutting some marijuana plant, snip.

DEL BARCO: As authorities try to crack down on illegal marijuana growers, the demand for pot continues to rise, especially since medical marijuana is now legal in California. At the same time, authorities still spend big bucks to eradicate marijuana. This year, CAMP hauled in four and a half million plants. But ex-sheriff deputy Steve Cobine admits that's a tiny percentage of what's really out there.

Mr. COBINE: We're just keeping a lid on it so it doesn't go crazy.

DEL BARCO: Instead of burning the confiscated plants, Sheriff's Sergeant Wayne Hanson says they bury them in undisclosed locations.

Mr. WAYNE HANSON (Sherriff's Sergeant, Humboldt County Sheriff's Office): Basically, a marijuana plant is 90 percent water. Dig a hole 10 feet down, throw a bunch of soil on it, it's basically destroyed then just by the compression of the earth.

(Soundbite of a vehicle)

DEL BARCO: As they haul off a truckload of confiscated plants, Sergeant Hanson makes a somewhat surprising admission.

Mr. HANSON: Part of me wants marijuana legalized because it would take away the wealth and the greed and the violence. But it has to be legalized in the United States of America, not just California, because if you just legalize it in California, then you have all the riffraff coming to California to make money to sell to the other 49 states.

(Soundbite of conversation)

DEL BARCO: Back in town, some envision the day when Humboldt County becomes the center for weed connoisseurs, a sort of Napa Valley of pot.

College student Lydia Katz(ph) looks at the yearly CAMP eradication and thinks, what a waste.

Mr. LYDIA KATZ: When I see people that are just chopping it down and destroying marijuana, I cry deep down inside. I wish that they understood exactly how much of a benefit this plant could bring to them, to their loved ones and to the rest of the world. Legalization would fix our economy in a second.

DEL BARCO: Katz and others say it's high time to decriminalize, regulate and tax marijuana. By some estimates, it's already the biggest cash crop in California.

Mandalit Del Barco, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

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