COURSEY: California decides to strike CAMP

In case you missed it, that white flag waving over Sacramento was the state of California's official surrender in the War on Pot.

If "war" is too strong for you, think of it as a boxing match. When the bell rang this summer for the beginning of Round 30, the state threw in the towel and said, "No mas."

For the first summer since 1983, the state will not fund any part of the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting. Julie Johnson's front-page story this morning describes its demise — a victim of state budget cuts — and says its mission will be taken over by the feds.

But if you read between the lines, the feds' Cannabis Eradication and Reclamation Team — CERT — won't be nearly as active as the helicopter-borne CAMP cops have been over the past three decades. There will be three helicopters statewide instead of five, and the amount of funding available is unknown.

"We'll basically do what we can do," said John Sullivan, assistant special agent in charge for the Drug Enforcement Administration in San Francisco. He said CERT will be "leaner and meaner" than CAMP.

This may come as good news if you've got a big illegal growing operation somewhere in the North Coast backcountry, or bad news if you are the owner or even care about some remote property that is subject to a clandestine invasion of criminals set on eradicating every living thing on that land with the exception of their own lucrative crop.

But what the news really signifies is the changing politics, priorities and economics of marijuana. The state can no longer afford to fight a losing battle against pot cultivation; it can barely afford to educate its children. At the same time, growers are moving out of the woods and into the suburbs as pot becomes more "mainstream" and medium-to-large operations lose their fear of confiscation and arrest.

"Growing shifted from the mountains to the valleys in all the counties" last year, Sullivan told Johnson.

Narcotics officers and arrest reports confirm the trend: More and more pot gardens are popping up in residential neighborhoods, on small farms, in rental homes, garages and greenhouses. With a medical marijuana recommendation from a physician, it's legal for an individual in Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake counties to grow enough pot at home to stay stoned and make some money on the side. By pooling prescriptions as a "collective," entrepreneurial growers can put together relatively large operations with little risk of criminal repercussions. Some do this legitimately; some push the limits.

This isn't to say that backwoods, clandestine pot gardens have disappeared from the landscape. There are still those willing to risk arrest (usually of low-paid, unskilled garden tenders), violence and loss of their crop in exchange for free land on which to grow huge amounts of usually lower-grade pot destined for sale in cities around the country. (Sonoma County users turn up their noses at backwoods pot.)

And those backwoods gardens, while fewer, still present a danger to anyone who comes across them and their often-armed guards, and a threat to the environment in which they grow. Tons of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides and miles of irrigation pipe go into growing pot in the wilderness. Streams are diverted, underbrush is cleared, forest animals are poisoned or scared away.

That's part of the good news in today's story — CERT will put a focus on not just pulling out backwoods gardens, but cleaning up the mess that growers leave behind. Besides the environmental benefits, the removal of that infrastructure also strikes an economic blow to the illegal grower.

Thirty summers later, the time seems ripe for a change in tactics.

Chris Coursey's blog offers a community commentary and forum, from issues of the day to the ingredients of life in Sonoma County.

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