North Coast, state production soaring; sending workers north cheaper than smuggling dope

  • This photograph taken by County of Mendocino Marijuana Eradication Team the week of August 14, 2006 was part of a raid on marajuana gardens found on tribal and public lands. 34 gardens and 23,000 plants were seized.

Illegal marijuana production is surging on the North Coast and across the state as a result of rising dominance of Mexican crime families over the state's underground pot economy.

Scores of Mexican nationals are being sneaked across the border to grow, guard and harvest marijuana gardens inside California because tightened border security has crimped smuggling of Mexican-grown pot into the state, according to local, state and federal drug agents.

Mexican-controlled operations now account for as much as 70 percent of all the marijuana cultivated in the state's rural regions, including the North Coast, the agents said.

Although multiagency teams are only in the early weeks of their annual marijuana crackdown statewide, the estimated street value of nearly 1 million pot plants uprooted this summer already equals last year's record $4.5billion. The number of seized plants in Mendocino, Lake and Sonoma counties and the Mendocino National Forest account for about 62 percent of the statewide total.

"There's more marijuana than ever growing out there," said Sgt. Rusty Noe, veteran director of Mendocino County's local anti-marijuana growing efforts.

Noe said that in Mendocino County twice the number of pot plants - 181,370 - have been pulled this summer compared to last year. The largest operation so far was a 30,000-plant garden raided Aug. 10 in the Leggett area.

In Sonoma County, more than 70,000 plants have been uprooted this summer.

A three-day operation earlier this month near Annapolis on the Sonoma Coast netted 29,195 plants with an estimated street value of $51million, according to Sonoma County Sheriff's Sgt. Chris Bertoli.

Pot production is soaring in Lake County, which topped out at No. 2 in the state last year with 133,441 seized plants . Sheriff Rod Mitchell said so far this summer 193,000 plants have been uprooted.

"We'll probably break 250,000 plants by the end of harvest," said Mitchell.

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