Feds, state seek crackdown on Mexican cartel pot grows on public lands

McGregor Scott, right, the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of California, flanked by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, center, discusses an increase in the use of a banned pesticide at illegal marijuana farms hidden on public lands Tuesday in Sacramento.
McGregor Scott, right, the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of California, flanked by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, center, discusses an increase in the use of a banned pesticide at illegal marijuana farms hidden on public lands Tuesday in Sacramento. Rich Pedroncelli — Associated Press

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra and U.S. Attorney and Eureka native McGregor Scott said during a news conference Tuesday that they want to “redouble” efforts to eradicate illegal marijuana grows and pesticide use on public lands that are ravaging the environment and putting the general public at risk.

While the stance on cannabis’ legality drastically differs between the state and federal governments, the two attorneys said illegal grows and pesticide use on public lands is banned by both governments and will serve to benefit the public if eliminated through cooperation. But Becerra warned the window of time is closing to incentivize growers to join the state’s fledgling legalized marijuana market rather than continue in or enter the black market. Ramping up enforcement at all levels, Becerra said, will work to deter further illegal grows.

“There is a lot of money to be made right now ... doing it the wrong way,” Becerra said at the Robert T. Matsui U.S. Courthouse on Tuesday morning. “If we don’t let folks that want to try to do this the right way know that there’s an infrastructure they can use, they’re not just going to stop.”

Scott, the son of a Eureka attorney, said this “manifest problem” has reached “biblical proportions” in California. Scott placed the majority of the blame of this on the proliferation of large scale grows by Mexican cartels, particularly on federal lands.

‘A game-changer’

While he said cartel marijuana grows on public lands has occurred in the past, Scott said recent research by people such as UC Davis research associate and Integral Ecology Research Center Executive Director Mourad Gabriel of Humboldt County has shown there has been a proliferation of the use of illegal pesticides that contaminate water, soils and wildlife.

“This is a game-changer to me,” Scott said. “It’s gone to a different level. If we don’t reverse the environmental effects of what’s going on here, we’re going to be reaping that.”

Gabriel said of the nearly 300 grow sites in California he has studied since 2012, the percentage of grows that use the illegal pesticide carbofuran or have evidence showing they have has increased dramatically in recent years — from 12 percent in 2012 to 78 percent in 2017.

U.S. Department of Agriculture Pacific Southwest Regional Forester Randy Moore said these deadly pesticides can be ingested by federally and state protected species like spotted owls. Illegal water diversions are also exacerbating impacts to critical watersheds throughout the state.

Gabriel compared the impacts to California’s Gold Rush.

“What is past is prologue,” Gabriel said. “That is, we are now at the precipice to either repeat the same story line and legacy impacts that the era such as the Gold Rush imprinted on this state or proactively address this in order to conserve our natural resources for future generations to use and enjoy.”

Details on how this new enforcement approach will play out were vague at the news conference. But Scott did outline some of his own goals including bringing the category of these environmental crimes from misdemeanor offenses to felony offenses.

Scott said they will also work on how to “reach back into Mexico and get the kingpins and get the people who are ultimately behind this whole operation.”

“Because we’re not satisfied with just the three or four people that we find in the grow site,” Scott said. “We want to get the people who are really making the money off of this.”

The marijuana itself is almost secondary to the black market money and environmental damage, Scott said.

Becerra’s office is also seeking to focus more enforcement attention on financial crimes and organized crime relating to marijuana. Gov. Jerry Brown included $14 million in his May Revise to the state budget for the purpose of creating five investigative teams in Becerra’s office to look into those crimes and marijuana mail deliveries.

Threats to people, wildlife

Illegal cannabis grows on federal lands is primarily a California issue, according to U.S. Forest Service Director of Law Enforcement Tracy Perry who said 1.4 million of the 1.5 million plants removed from public lands nationwide were in California.

Moore, whose department oversees the Forest Service, said the more funding and attention the Forest Service has to put on cleaning up illegal grow sites diverts money away from some of their primary duties such as making forests more resilient to wildfires. California had its most destructive fire season on record in 2017. These grows often put their employees and members of the public using public lands at risk of running into armed people who are protecting their grows, Moore said, and pesticides can also be ingested by animals that are killed by hunters.

Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims said that investigators and public land users should not have to face the potential of walking into fish hooks hung at eye level or trip wires attached to shotgun shells that are used as defense measures at illegal grow sites.

Siskiyou County Sheriff Jon Lopey said his county is “absolutely overwhelmed” by illicit grows to the point that the county’s Board of Supervisors declared a state of emergency.

Becerra said the reason to combat these illegal grows is not limited to the environmental damage, but because they are a danger to the general public. He called on state legislators to recognize this priority as they work to pass the budget in the next month.

“In California, we finally will have some resources put at our disposal,” Becerra said. “But if the local law enforcement officials and state officials don’t get the resources and the infrastructure, the architecture to get this right, the work that the federal government does along with what’s already being done at the local and state level will not be enough because there is just too much money in them there hills.”

Scott said about $2.5 million was appropriated to the U.S. Forest Service by the budget omnibus bill that was passed earlier this year and that about 90 percent of that money will come to California and local law enforcement.

“We’ve got a manifest enforcement effort that is well down the planning stages, and we’ll be back,” Scott said in conclusion.

Will Houston can be reached at 707-441-0504.

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