Illegal Pot Farms Poison Public Land

Public alert

Supporting a legitimate industry sometimes takes shutting down the dark side. The Department of Justice has made preventing illegal marijuana cultivation on tribal and public lands one of its top enforcement priorities. Make no mistake, these are not pleasant backyard garden plots; this is a Mexican drug cartel operation worth billions of dollars in California, alone. It is now cheaper and easier to grow the drug here than it it to smuggle it in.

Armed guards tote semiautomatic rifles, guarding as many as 200,000 plants at a single site. They clear cut public forests, poison wildlife, divert precious water sources and leave tons of trash behind at the end of the growing season. This is now most of what Forest Service law enforcement deals with in California.

Shutting down cartel growing will take more than the Forest Service, though. States can do a lot to help the budding legal marijuana industry take on the illegal and dangerous trade taking place on our protected lands, while also protecting important natural resources in the process.


Not an Isolated Problem

It isn’t just California’s problem, of course. Federal efforts also focus on Hawaii, Washington, Oregon, West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee and areas where the growers have expanded into Michigan, Wisconsin, Alabama, and Virginia, as well.

It just seems worse in the Southwest because of amount of public land. In California, the Sequoia National Forest is reportedly a patchwork of pot fields. Much the same is true in Yosemite, Sequoia and Redwood national parks. In Colorado, most of the sites are in the foothills of the Rockies, in Douglas, Jefferson and Boulder Counties, including six national forests, Pike, San Isabel, Arapaho, Roosevelt, White River and Gunnison.


A Violent Business

Those operations represent a valuable asset for the growers, with black market pot selling anywhere from $500 to $4,500 per pound, and are protected accordingly. Tripwires, traps, fishhooks hung from trees at eye level and heavily armed men guard these illegal grow ops. Going into the woods can be dangerous.

The danger is not limited to the intimidation of an occasional errant hiker, however. In an interview with NBC Bay Area, Lieutenant Rick Ko of the Fresno County Sheriff’s Department’s Marijuana Eradication Task Force cited shootings, home invasion robberies and 6 murders in 2012, not to mention the 574 firearms confiscated between 2007 and 2013, largely from illegal grow opens discovered in the parks.  In 2011, Jere Melo, a Fort Bragg, California City Councilman, was shot and killed when he attempted to investigate an illegal site in Mendocino.


Environmental Degradation

The camps, where the growers and guards may live for months at a time, generate tons of trash and waste. The fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, some of which are banned for agricultural use in the United States, leach into soil and poison waters in an area far larger than the actual grow site. The use of these chemicals further endangers protected species such as the Pacific fisher, California spotted owl, Sierra Nevada red fox and Humboldt marten.

Felt perhaps more acutely during a drought emergency, these operations also divert large quantities of water, depriving downstream users of an increasingly rare commodity. This is not easily undone, especially to the extent it involves damming and ditching. Visitors to public lands are now being asked to report any drip lines they find in the parks, since these almost invariably lead to illegal grow ops.


The Persistence of the Black Market

It is puzzling to some that legalization does not seem to be having more of an effect on black market marijuana operations. It may be too early to see the full effect of legalization efforts because such efforts are still relatively limited. Federal criminal enforcement will continue to be a necessity as long as cartels remain active in the market.

Ultimately, however, the legal product will need to outcompete illegal marijuana in the marketplace, and price is a big part of that equation. States must look beyond their own revenue needs when devising schemes to tax legal marijuana, so that the retail price remains low enough to keep legal marijuana in contention. Tax policy could assist law enforcement in protecting our ability to preserve and enjoy natural resources.

Anne Wallace is a New York lawyer who writes extensively on legal and business issues. She also teaches law and business writing at the college and professional level. Anne graduated from Fordham Law School and Wellesley College.

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