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Marijuana plants eradicated in 2015 reported to CAMP program

Total statewide: 832,085

Top 10 counties:

Trinity 90,283

Lake 83,635

Mendocino 66,818

Tulare 66,509

Shasta 60,143

Sonoma 52,593

Santa Clara 39,538

Humboldt 37,455

San Bernardino 37,265

San Diego 36,679

— Source: U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, as reported to the California Department of Justice

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration grants given to California agencies for marijuana eradication

2016 — $4,298,828

2015 — $5,368,410

2014 — $5,325,000

2013 — $5,496,500

2012 — $5,287,500

2011 — $1,883,755

— Source: U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration

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.

“I think what Gov. Brown did was great,” Walsh said. “I hope we can educate the public that full legalization in California isn’t the solution to the environmental problems.”

Martin, who was elected sheriff in 2014, said his narcotics unit focuses on the problem sites where people are trespassing and stealing water. He mentioned a massive pot garden his deputies recently found near the Indian Valley Reservoir with more than 17,500 pot plants. “It’s pretty hard to argue that’s medical,” Martin said.

“The vast majority of our efforts are going after very large grows that are having an impact on our environment,” he said.

Some medical marijuana advocates and lawyers who have long been critics of the eradication programs have said law enforcement appear to be focusing on such illegal gardens, and not just in Lake County.

Change in tactics

The helicopters that once hovered above backyards in the Emerald Triangle region of Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties — causing the phones at civil liberties watch groups to ring off the hook — have “faded into the background,” said Bonnie Blackberry, president of the Civil Liberties Monitoring Project based in Garberville in southern Humboldt County.

“We still have an office, we just don’t get the same kind of complaints at all,” Blackberry said.

Blackberry and others said medical marijuana patients still at times feel targeted, but more by a bureaucratic type of enforcement involving land use and water regulations.

“They used to come in with the helicopters and take the pot; now they have satellite imaging,” Blackberry said. “They can send people a letter and say, ‘We see you and now you better do this.’ They fine people and bankrupt them.”

Several medical marijuana advocates in Lake County said they’re not hearing many complaints so far this year about the Sheriff’s Office, although it’s still early in the season. Harvest typically doesn’t start until at least September for the types of larger, outdoor plant varieties pot farmers are more likely to grow.

Ron Green, a retired attorney and longtime pot advocate who lives outside Hidden Valley Lake, said he’s not hearing of “mom and pop being busted.”

“If they go after the big guys on public land that are wreaking havoc with the environment, stealing water and plugging up creeks, that’s what they should be doing,” Green said. “Most people believe that, whether you’re an advocate or not.”

But Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the California Growers Association, a trade association representing about 600 small-scale cannabis farmers and businesses across the state, said law enforcement is under pressure to get high plant counts to justify the next year’s DEA money. As a result, legitimate growers are at risk, he said.

“The reality is law enforcement isn’t good at discerning (between) a criminal unregulated grow and a regulated grow,” Allen said. “They’re not careful.”

Last year, law enforcement reported seizing 86,500 cannabis plants and uncovering egregious environmental destruction at a series of sites in the remote Island Mountain region where Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties meet. Allen said he believes medical marijuana farms were caught up in the sweep alongside criminals.

“One of the problems is they don’t present granular data,” Allen said. “They’ll serve 25 warrants in a four-day operation but only put out one press release and aggregated numbers. It really makes everything looking bigger and worse than it was.”

Environmental damage

In mid-July, Mendocino County authorities reported uprooting 18,396 marijuana plants from different sites in and around Laytonville. Sheriff Tom Allman has taken a strong stance against environmental problems related to illegal marijuana production. The county cleans up the sites, an expensive undertaking not currently prioritized in Lake County.

Sarah Shrader, Sonoma chair of Americans for Safe Access, an advocacy group for people who use cannabis to treat health ailments, said she heard from a person whose Laytonville-area garden was eradicated in that mission even though he claimed to have been growing medical marijuana for a collective. Shrader echoed a belief among cannabis advocates that the current law enforcement strategy is to get high plant counts during eradication missions.

“I told him, ‘They’re just there for your plants and their numbers,’” Shrader said.

With 83,635 plants destroyed last year, Lake came in second only to Trinity County, which is 2½ times larger. The plant totals come from the California Department of Justice, which still tracks eradication under the CAMP program name though the state does not fund it.

Lake County has received between $170,000 and $225,000 in federal money for each of the past six years, most of which goes toward overtime pay and chartered helicopters to haul marijuana plants out of remote areas.

In contrast, Sonoma County received only $40,000 from the DEA this year, a sharp drop from the $120,000 it received in 2015. The decreased funding in part reflects the shift of marijuana from remote open spaces in Sonoma County to indoor cultivation sites.

Last year, a Democratic congressman from Southern California, Rep. Ted Lieu, tried and failed to slash the DEA’s budget for marijuana eradication in half, arguing the program has been ineffective in eradicating marijuana.

Allen, with the California Growers Association, said he hopes that the entirely new regulatory structure being built for California’s marijuana industry will shift the enforcement of most water and code issues out of the criminal realm.

“You have folks trying to solve problems and store water properly, and they’re getting reported,” Allen said.

Walsh has been the lead narcotics detective heading up marijuana eradication for six seasons. He jokes he’s lasted so long only because he doesn’t react to poison oak.

Dumping grounds

The work takes officers up to sweeping views of gold and green ridges and the silvery fresh water of Clear Lake. It also leads through dense brush to large garbage dumps in the middle of the forest. In the Kelseyville area garden, a large pit that once served as an illegal water reservoir had been turned into a dump, heaped with discarded sleeping bags, empty boxes of Ritz crackers and Marlboro cigarettes, bags of Klass Agua Frescas drink mix, emptied containers of rat poison and fertilizers.

The Sheriff’s Office does not have the funds or manpower to clean up the trash, Walsh said.

Many of the men along for the eradication day in June didn’t want their names published or their photographs taken because they live in communities where marijuana is rampant and enforcement is frowned upon.

Walsh said some of the men they arrest in gardens are new immigrants, many from Michoacán. Others, detectives suspect, have connections to the community and run indoor pot gardens as well.

“Some of these organizations, they’re so diversified that losing one or two grows is not a huge impact on their business, so it does make it profitable,” Walsh said.

Even so, Walsh said he believes it makes a difference with each site they destroy. Or at least, he said, if they stopped battling against illegal marijuana cultivation, “it would get a lot worse.”

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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