The man leading the major crimes task force in Mendocino County says half of the county's residents are involved in some aspect of the thriving marijuana industry, drawing the ire of some and agreement from others.
Mendocino Major Crimes Task Force Commander Rich Russell estimates that half of Mendocino County's 87,400 residents are engaged in growing, distributing and preparing pot for market.
"It is a disservice to the many thousands of law-abiding people in the county to make such unsubstantiated claims," said Mendocino County Supervisor John McCowen.
Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman said the estimate is inflated.
"I don't agree with that," he said. Allman declined to offer a counter estimate, saying those kinds of guesses damage law enforcement's credibility.
Ukiah defense attorney Bob Boyd, whose cases primarily involve marijuana, agrees with Allman.
"I don't think there's any basis for what he's saying," he said. "It seems he has a very jaded view of the community he serves."
Russell stands by his estimate and said the percentage of people involved with marijuana production in Sonoma and Lake counties is probably close behind Mendocino County's. He expects that Humboldt County's would be higher. Russell's estimate includes seasonal workers who trim pot plants and hydroponic businesses that sell cultivation materials.
"It's big everywhere in Northern California," he said.
Lake County Sheriff Frank Rivero said nowhere near half of Lake County's population is involved in marijuana production.
"I would say it's a small percentage. I would say less than 10 percent," he said.
Sonoma County Sheriff's narcotics task force Detective Sgt. Steve Gossett said he has "no idea" how many people in Sonoma County are involved in marijuana production and sales.
"I don't know how you would begin to estimate," he said.
Humboldt County Sheriff's officials did not respond to inquiries but Humboldt State University economics professor Erick Eschker, who studies marijuana, said half seems like a large number for his county.
Russell said he has no statistical information to back his figure. But he believes it's a good estimate, one that is based on his training, background, contacts and what he sees in area backyards from the air.
"From Laytonville north, you have to search for a yard that doesn't have marijuana growing," Russell said.
Mendocino County long has been one of the state's top marijuana producers, based on the number of plants seized by law enforcement.
As of Oct. 1, the sheriff's two-man marijuana eradication team had confiscated almost 80,000 plants and 3,349 pounds of processed pot, officials said.
Russell, a state Department of Justice employee, said his multiagency team has confiscated more than 100,000 plants in the county so far this year.
Those are small numbers compared to previous years when there were more marijuana eradication resources provided by state and federal agencies. More than 340,000 plants were seized in Mendocino County by the state Campaign Against Marijuana Planting in 2011. CAMP seized more than 572,000 plants in the county in 2010.
It's widely believed that marijuana is Mendocino County's top crop.
John Kuhry, executive director of the Economic Development and Financing Corp., said the marijuana industry is a huge part of Mendocino County's economy and he wouldn't be surprised if half of the population has some kind of involvement in its production.