Secret marijuana gardens target of eradication campaign on North Coast
KELSEYVILLE - This was far from the cocktail-hour networking meetings for cannabis companies, worlds away from sterile laboratories measuring THC levels and the marketing teams channeling a great entrepreneurial push fueled by California's recent embrace of the medical marijuana industry.
This was the Lake County wilderness, where an orange peel, a crushed Coca-Cola can and a cairn of rocks marked a footpath leading into the chaparral-covered hills southwest of Kelseyville.
A sheriff's detective in camouflage gear pushed through a dense thicket until the underbrush lightened between manzanita trunks. He stepped into a clearing and onto a line of black quarter-inch hose, something that's become as ubiquitous in North Coast backcountry areas as poison oak.
Nearby, two men sleeping on cots under low-slung tarps were startled awake by the sound of deputies sneaking into their camp. They bolted, running through the woods wearing only underwear as the two officers chased after them, weighted down in vests and gear belts.
“When we hike in, almost every time we run into someone,” Lake County Detective Frank Walsh said standing in the abandoned campsite several hours later. “They split up, heading somewhere toward Kelsey Creek. There are too many places for them to run to.”
Three years after the state cut funding for its now-defunct marijuana eradication program, local law enforcement agencies backed by federal dollars continue to battle against clandestine marijuana farms that proliferate in the region's rugged hillsides.
Law enforcement officials across the North Coast say they are using U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration grants to target the largest and most environmentally damaging pot gardens, often those planted by people trespassing on public or private lands. Nationally, the DEA spent $18 million last year on pot eradication, $5.3 million of that in California.
Lake County's 1,329 square miles are rural and wild. About half are public lands, mostly in Mendocino National Forest. County officials, including Sheriff Brian Martin, say it's one of the top marijuana producers in the state. It is a hard claim to verify for an industry that sources marijuana from a wide variety of places, from six pot plants in grandma's garden to illicit plots hidden in the remote mountains. But state marijuana eradication reports regularly put Lake County at the top.
So far this season, its sheriff's detectives have destroyed 160,000 pot plants. The vast majority - except for “a couple thousand” - were from what Walsh calls “mountain gardens,” cannabis farms hidden in remote areas of private or public lands.
The illegal garden outside Kelseyville was spotted on private property several months before officials secured a search warrant to check it out. Walsh said they watched the area and had seen supply drops and men hiking gear into the woods.
On an unusually rainy June morning, Walsh's team - about a dozen National Guardsmen and Bureau of Land Management officers - met before dawn and made the hourlong trek into the site.
The sleeping campers - who had probably been calling that patch of wild woods and pot gardens their home for months - bolted through the brush, one almost immediately disappearing into the wilderness. The second led Walsh and a BLM officer on a half-mile chase until he finally vanished in the woods somewhere near Kelsey Creek.
Back at the primitive camp, Walsh and the others found a pellet gun, .22-caliber rifle and a pistol. Hoses led to a large rectangular pit lined with tarps holding thousands of gallons of cold, clear water diverted from a spring. Someone had scratched out a grocery list in pencil on a scrap of cardboard: platanos, naranja, manzana, sodas, cervezas, cigarros. Muddy socks dangled from a laundry line. A dead rat was crushed in a trap near a makeshift kitchen equipped with a two-burner camp stove. A skunk tail hung on a nearby tree. The area reeked of human feces.
The garden wasn't as big as Walsh had estimated from the air; 3,274 plants uprooted by officers from a series of small garden plots hidden beneath a canopy of manzanita branches pulled together with ropes, an apparent attempt to hide the garden from above.
Averaging 3 feet tall, about half of the plants already had buds, what Walsh called an autoflowering variety that buds at 90 days regardless of sunlight. Another variety would have grown taller and bigger, but was not mature when uprooted.
Walsh said he supports the state's new Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act, three bills signed last year by Gov. Jerry Brown designed to create a statewide regulatory system for medical marijuana businesses. But until the nation is unified in its drug laws, he predicted the black market demand will keep driving people into the woods to grow pot.