Editor's note: This story was originally published on August 11, 2007.
Quick — what Merced County crop is worth more than alfalfa hay, corn silage, chicken eggs or even cotton?
The answer is marijuana — otherwise known as pot, Mary Jane, grass, ganja, hemp or weed.
Whatever you call it, those buds mean big bucks.
In 2006, Merced County law enforcement disposed of up to $87 million worth of Cannabis sativa — about 29,000 plants. This year, law enforcement officials say they have already surpassed that number, destroying 36,420 plants with a combined street value of up to $109 million. And with the prime harvesting months of September and October ahead, they expect to beat the county's record of 40,000 plants found by the end of the year, a combined value up to $120 million.
Those illicit millions pose a host of problems for the county. Sheriff's deputies, local police and other law enforcers must divert their attention from other urgent crimes to play a sometimes deadly game of cops-and-growers. And these aren't flower-power farmers growing a few stalks hydroponically for personal toking. They're organized criminal gangs — some with deep roots in Mexico — and pot helps fund their violence. Their clandestine plantations — with individual plants that would tower over Shaquille O'Neal — grow in valleys and ravines across the county. They are guarded by booby traps the Viet Cong would be proud to deploy. And watched over by "mopes" — low-level field hands hired by crime lords to monitor their money crop.
To be sure, not everyone in the county views marijuana farming as a problem. A tiny but growing minority believes that law enforcement funds could be much better spent on what they regard as serious crimes — not on a victimless personal choice. They point to such states as Oregon and Alaska, where pot possession and use are rarely enforced misdemeanors, as examples of how a more tolerant approach can work. Decriminalization advocates also point to Prop 215, the "medical marijuana" law, as a rational alternative to busts and bans.
Pot replaces meth
It was only a few years ago that meth dominated the county's drug culture. Officials believe production of that drug in the county is dropping, thanks in part to federal controls on Ephedrine and other substances used in the drug's production. However, pot growers are now producing more potent forms of marijuana containing increased levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the plant's primary active ingredient.
Marijuana growers are trying to harvest larger crops, using more elaborate techniques than ever before. In July, the Merced Multi-Agency Narcotics Task Force discovered more than 19,000 plants in a 100-acre cornfield near Planada. Officers said the operation, valued at $76 million, was one of the most sophisticated they had ever seen. The marijuana plants were strategically positioned beside each cornstalk with irrigation drip-lines feeding the individual plants. One member of the task force noted that the plants were so well hidden, even an airplane would have had a tough time spotting them. "There are a lot more plants being grown out there," said Neil Compston, task force commander of the Merced Multi-Agency Narcotics Task Force.
Compston said more growers are cloning female plants, which produce the valuable buds with higher THC levels, in order to yield a product that will be more profitable on the street. "They are basically making hybrid plants," Compston said.
Most marijuana plants are valued at $1,000 to $3,000 per plant, based on the measurement that an average plant will yield one pound of finished product per season, according to Merced County Sheriff's Detective Scott Dover. With the newer varieties' higher THC content, however, Dover said it's not uncommon to find a single plant priced up to $5,000.