California’s weed invasion: Wildlife officers become unlikely drug squad in battle against illegal marijuana growers

Famed for its wine and citrus, the state is struggling to contain another crop – illegal cannabis grown on public land, often by armed gangs that care little for the environment

Tim Walker

Half-an-hour’s drive from Sacramento, the California state capital, and a few steps from the bank of the Sacramento River, Lieutenant Patrick Foy of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) held up a dead marijuana plant. The ground around him was littered with the stuff: beyond use but still recognisably cannabis. “There’s a joke in the delta,” he said. “If you plant a seed, get out of the way fast before the plant hits you on the way up.”

The California Delta, where the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers meet, is rich with wildlife, but this ultra-fertile land has also proved irresistible to an invasive species: illegal marijuana growers. Several weeks ago, a marijuana farm on this site was raided by the authorities, who found and destroyed more than 9,000 plants.

This week, Washington became the latest US state to legalise marijuana for recreational use. In New York, the Brooklyn district attorney’s office announced that it would no longer prosecute most low-level marijuana cases. The Washington DC Cannabis Campaign submitted a petition bearing 58,000 signatures to the city’s Board of Elections, meaning residents of the US capital may vote on legalising cannabis there in November. Yet in California, by far the country’s biggest producer of the drug, marijuana growers still operate in a legal grey area, leading to violent crime and to severe consequences for the environment.

The CDFW is an unlikely drug enforcer. Normally, the agency’s top priority is to prevent poaching of the state’s endangered abalone and sturgeon. But marijuana cultivation in rural California is endemic, and nowhere more so than on public land, with so-called “trespass grows” scattered liberally throughout state and national parks.

This particular grow was found from the air, by one of the department’s small fleet of spotter planes. Four Mexican men aged 25 to 35 were arrested during the raid. They left behind rubbish bags swollen with fertiliser and pesticide containers, and a campsite littered with beer cans and cigarette packets.

In 1996, California became the first US state to legalise marijuana for medical use. Possession of an ounce (28g) or less of the drug is presently punishable with a maximum $100 (£58) fine. But while Colorado and Washington have jumped ahead and introduced legal, regulated markets for the cultivation and sale of recreational marijuana, California has never developed proper legislation to deal with how and where all of its semi-legal weed is being grown.

While California has registered growers to supply medical marijuana, the vast bulk of the state’s crop is illegal (Getty) While California has registered growers to supply medical marijuana, the vast bulk of the state’s crop is illegal (Getty)
In a recent report, the website Mother Jones estimated that California’s marijuana harvest could be worth more than $30bn a year, more than the state’s top 10 legal agricultural commodities put together. Of the almost one million marijuana plants uprooted in 2012 by federal officials, 86 per cent were in California.

Unlike the previous generation of hippie growers, many of California’s weed farmers now have links to gangs on both sides of the Mexican border. “Mexican drug-trafficking organisations have been involved in outdoor grows on public lands in California for several years,” said Special Agent Casey Rettig of the US Drug Enforcement Administration, which often works with the CDFW on such cases. “They are very much armed and dangerous.”

Lt Foy’s agency has experienced seven shootings at marijuana farms in the past decade. “These guys cultivate marijuana in places where our constituents hunt, fish or go hiking,” he said. “Every year, a hunter stumbles across a grow site. If the hunter is dressed in camouflage and has a gun, and comes face to face with armed growers, that can easily go really bad.”

The farms also represent a major environmental threat. Half-buried black tubing runs throughout this former growing site, part of a sophisticated irrigation system set up by the farmers to pump water from the river to their crops. “They’ll grow as much marijuana as they have water for, they’ll dam a creek and draw every last drop. They’ll often dump 50 gallon bags of fertiliser right into the creek, to dissolve into the water they use to irrigate,” Lt Foy said.

With California currently suffering its worst drought on record, and marijuana plants each needing an average of six gallons of water a day, cannabis growers are both sharing and exacerbating the water shortage being felt by the state’s legitimate farmers. In a 2012 study, scientists found that marijuana growers had siphoned some 18 million gallons of water from a single tributary of northern California’s Eel River, a crucial spawning ground for endangered salmon.

The cannabis farmers’ market in Los Angeles showcased high quality cannabis from growers and vendors throughout the state (Getty) The cannabis farmers’ market in Los Angeles showcased high quality cannabis from growers and vendors throughout the state (Getty)
Another victim of the boom in illicit drug crops is the Pacific fisher, a rare, carnivorous member of the weasel family found in the forests of Humboldt County. Researchers from the University of California, Davis, analysed the carcasses of 58 fishers and found rat poison in 46 of them, concluding that marijuana farmers were using deadly rodenticides to keep the fishers and their prey away from the crop.

Earlier this year, a dog belonging to Dr Mourad Gabriel, the wildlife disease expert who conducted the fisher autopsies, died after being deliberately poisoned with the same substance. “It was a stark reminder of how far these folks will go,” Dr Gabriel said, adding that swathes of the forest he studies were frequently out of bounds because of the dangers posed by armed marijuana farmers. He explained: “I have to co-ordinate with law enforcement agencies to have an officer present every time I want to take a sample of water or soil from the field.”

Many growers who are arrested serve only cursory jail sentences. And often, said Lt Foy, raiding a farm once is not enough. “Sometimes these guys come back as little as two days later – and just start growing all over again.”

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