FRESNO — Last fall, narcotics agents confiscated thousands of marijuana plants, many 10 feet tall, from a 140-acre farm just on the edge of Fresno — one of the biggest pot busts in the county's history. The pot grew hidden among rows of rotting peppers, tomatoes and bitter melons, tended by a dozen immigrant farming families.
Deputies detained 50 people, all of whom were lowland Laotians, a refugee population from southeast Asia that has made its home in California's Central Valley over the past three decades. Investigators say that some of these traditional vegetable growers have become increasingly involved in well-organized medical marijuana growing schemes, with the aim of selling the drug commercially.
The Laotians' involvement has expanded in recent years, with the move toward growing pot in California's agricultural heartland. Now, authorities say, people from this relatively small community account for much of the pot growing in backyards and on prime farmland, while Mexican drug traffickers dominate grows in the forests of surrounding mountains.
"There are many more Laotians involved in the agricultural grows than Mexicans," said Lauren Horwood, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Eastern District of California, which conducted several prosecutions of lowland Laotian growers last year.
The problem has become so widespread that the U.S. Attorney's office is producing a brochure in Lao and plans a television program on a local Laotian channel.
While federal law still prohibits marijuana, California's landmark 1996 ballot measure allows patients with a doctor's recommendation or their caregivers to grow pot for medical use. However, investigators say many growers instead are selling marijuana commercially for profit, which is illegal under both state and federal law.
The Laotians cultivate marijuana plants the height of trees, using the state's medical marijuana law and the lush cover of other crops to avoid detection.
"In the Valley, they're the ones growing acreage," said Brent Wood, a special agent with California's Department of Justice who heads the multi-agency Central Valley Marijuana Investigation Team. "They will have 20-30 doctor recommendations from family members, and their plants are humongous monsters. They're very organized and very good at selling the pot out of state."
Community leaders say some Laotian refugees and their adult children, who suffer high unemployment and poverty, turn to pot farming out of desperation, because it seems the only way to make a decent living.
Laotians started streaming into the Central Valley in the early 1980s, in the wake of the Vietnam War and the communist takeover of Laos. They fled bombings, forced labor and persecution to refugee camps in Thailand and later moved to countries such as the United States.
About 10,000 Laotians settled in central California, refugee advocates estimate. The region's productive agricultural land drew them, because many were farmers in Laos and hoped to transplant their skills here.
Instead, community leaders say, Laotians have languished in a region with high poverty levels. Many cannot find work, and at least 40 percent receive government assistance, said John Bosavanh, a Laotian caseworker with the Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries.
Most lack an education and have limited English skills, he said. And small-scale vegetable farming brings in little money and a lot of headaches, including the inability to compete with bigger farmers.
"People are on welfare, they don't have jobs, and those who are working hard cannot make good money," Bosavanh said.
Those in the community who are against growing marijuana are afraid to speak up, because the growers often have guns, he said. Bosavanh, who is also a pastor, says people come to him instead to complain. "In Laos we had nothing, and we came to the U.S. because we wanted to improve our lives. Most of us are honest, good citizens."
There are no official estimates of how many Laotians grow marijuana on farmland and in backyards, but community leaders say it has become common and blatant — something people talk about openly at the grocery store. Multi-generation families are making enough on marijuana farming to buy houses and cars, Bosavanh said, eventually pushing those who cannot afford such comforts to also start planting pot.
"They say, 'I do it because everyone else does it,'" he said.
Lt. Richard Ko, head of marijuana eradication for the county sheriff's office, said the incentive for growers is great: high grade marijuana can bring up to $2,500 per pound locally and $4,000 per pound out of state. Each plant can produce three to 10 lbs — and plants grown on prime farmland with good soil and irrigation tend to be big.
A farmer could reap millions of dollars per acre growing pot, Ko said, compared to a few hundred dollars per acre growing vegetables. "There's a lot of money to be made in farming marijuana."
This summer and fall, federal authorities and six sheriff's offices across the Valley made 188 arrests, and seized 82 weapons, $113,783 in cash and more than 480,000 marijuana plants. Investigators say many of those arrested were Southeast Asian growers, mainly Laotians.
But few growers are charged and convicted, said Wood, the special agent with the Department of Justice, because there are simply too many growers and too few resources to prosecute them. And investigators have to catch them selling out of state or for profit, he said.
In the September raid on the Fresno County farm, all 50 people were released and none were charged with a crime, according to the U.S. Attorney's office. Officials declined to say why no one was prosecuted.
Last year, Wood said, saw a large increase in home invasion robberies and other crimes connected with agricultural marijuana grows — including the shooting a teenager in April at a Fresno-area marijuana farm. Two brothers, both Laotian, will stand trial in the slaying of the teen and burying him in an orange grove.
Michael Voravong, 29, is charged with shooting 16-year-old Sammy Mercado when the teen and two others tried to steal marijuana. Marshall Voravong is charged with being an accessory.
After a third Laotian man was arrested in Utah with a trunk full of processed marijuana, he had led detectives to Mercado's grave. He told investigators he helped the Voravong brothers bury the body, and that the three of them planned to split the pot profits.
Neither brother has entered a plea. Charles Magill, the lawyer representing Michael Voravong, said his client was "being framed by the guy who was caught with the dope."