Annual pot eradication program scaled back

California's 28-year-old marijuana eradication program that has destroyed millions of pot plants in public and private wilderness areas is no more.

The Campaign Against Marijuana Planting — CAMP as it was commonly known — was dropped this year after the state cut funding for the program. It is being replaced this season with a new name, new bosses and a scaled-down approach.

The effort to eliminate large-scale pot farms on public land will continue under federal direction, with the Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Forest Service taking lead roles rather than state officials.

The program will be "leaner and meaner," with fewer full-time staff and reduced helicopter hours, said John Sullivan, assistant special agent in charge for the Drug Enforcement Administration's San Francisco field division.

"It's going to be logistically tougher. We'll basically do what we can do," Sullivan said.

In recent years, five teams, each equipped with a chartered helicopter, covered five areas of the state.

Now there will be three zones in what is called the Cannabis Eradication and Reclamation Team, or CERT.

The loss of two helicopter teams will have an impact.

The aircraft are the most effective tool in the eradication program because many sheriff's offices don't have their own, Sullivan said. Their use save many hours by dropping agents into remote locations, he said.

"I don't expect our numbers this year to be as high as last year, however, we never start the year by saying we're going to get more," said Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman. "We are going after the larger grows that are most destructive."

Sheriff's offices may have more control over some aspects of the program, especially planning the date and location of raids, Allman said.

"I'm not complaining," Allman said. "The downside is there is less money for helicopter time. But maybe it was time for a change."

Sonoma County Sheriff Steve Freitas said CAMP has made it possible to spot clandestine marijuana gardens and then later deploy officers to destroy them — rather than simply responding to public complaints about land poaching.

Fewer days and fewer helicopter hours is effectively "reducing our ability to do enforcement," Freitas said.

The main boon this year is CERT teams will for the first time put a priority on cleaning up the sites, Allman said.

Before, most raids focused on destroying the plants, and agents rarely cleaned out pesticides and other refuse, said Tommy LaNier, director of the National Marijuana Initiative, a federal program funded by the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

"That's a big part of this new program," said LaNier. "Removing trash, removing fertilizers, pesticides, black pipes, all to disrupt infrastructure of these large grows."

A typical outback marijuana farm costs $30,000 to $40,000 to set up and operate, including irrigation hoses, camping equipment and ongoing costs such as labor and food, LaNier said.

"When you remove that, you're taking a big hit on their ability to come back," LaNier said.

Sullivan said agents will load as much hose, pesticides and camping gear as they can, along with marijuana plants, in baskets hung from the helicopters.

Last year, Mendocino County spent as much on eradication as it did to remove hoses, pesticides and perform other clean-up, Allman said.

In addition to CERT, the county will receive $20,000 to clean up illegal pot gardens from the Mendocino Public Safety Foundation.

Local agencies will provide additional personnel, said Sgt. Steve Gossett, who runs the Sonoma County sheriff's narcotics unit. "We may have fewer days than last year," said Gossett. "And (state agencies) are not providing any personnel, as far as on the ground, which they had in the past."

Those counties with the most federal and state land may see more CERT support, he said. Agents pulled fewer plants last year in Sonoma County and saw greater numbers nearer to population centers, said Gossett. Those plants tended to be bigger and healthier.

The trend held true statewide, Sullivan said, noting that a found large plots of marijuana with plants as tall as 14 feet growing in the middle of crops at Central Valley farms.

"We saw an explosion of these sites," he said. "Growing shifted from the mountains to the valleys in all the counties."

The now-defunct state bureau of narcotic enforcement ran CAMP in the past. CAMP began in 1983. All counties except for San Francisco County participated.

In 2011, CAMP eradicated about 2 million plants in California, 63 percent taken from state, federal and county properties, and the program cost about $1.9 million, according to the state department of justice.

The numbers were down from 2010, when more than 4 million plants were eradicated and the program cost $2.25 million.

The change from CAMP to CERT is essentially a handoff from state to federal leadership. The majority of funding over the past five years came from federal grants, and the state's portion of the budget hovered around five percent, according to state DOJ figures.

A state DOJ agent will continue overseeing the program this season, his salary paid for by the Forest Service, to ease the transition.

Eradication teams will be staffed with combinations of local law enforcement officers, the CHP, state fish and game, federal Bureau of Land Management, park service and others, similar to teams in the past.

Federal spending will be reduced, although Sullivan said he could not release budget figures for the 2012 eradication season until the end of the year.

"We went from five fully-funded teams, managed by state employees, to other agencies having to backfill the spots," Sullivan said. "We're in the day and age where resources are tight."

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