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High times ahead? Marijuana number one illegal crop in Merced County

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.

A new business model for growers

Merced County is not the only area that is seeing an increase in marijuana output — and like any business, drug cartels are changing their business model to boost their bottom line. Marijuana cultivation nationwide has increased sharply since 2000, as more drug trafficking organizations relocated their operations from Mexico to the United States and Canada, according to the 2007 Domestic Cannabis Cultivation Assessment produced by the Department of Justice's National Drug Intelligence Center.

The report states those organizations are shifting their operations to reduce the risk of getting busted at the border and to gain direct access to local drug markets — all while achieving higher profit margins for domestically produced, higher-grade marijuana. Indoor hydroponic marijuana operations are spreading in the U.S. as criminal groups try to reduce their risk of detection, according to the federal report. Marijuana grown indoors is also said to be of a higher potency and is more expensive on the streets.

Over the years, Compston, a former assistant regional operations commander with the state's Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP), has seen grass grow high on the list of law enforcement priorities. And the growers have responded just as aggressively. Compston recalls that one of his fellow officers was wounded after being shot by a gunman guarding a marijuana plantation during a raid in Santa Clara County. Officers killed that gunman, but a second was able to escape.

Just last Tuesday, shots rang out in Sequoia National Park when park rangers in a helicopter were fired on by possible pot growers during a raid on a marijuana garden in the mountains of Tulare County. That raid yielded about 5,000 plants.

Still, it's extremely rare and difficult for law enforcement to bust the drug lords responsible for funding the large growing operations. Often, even the growers themselves do not know who is funding an illegal cultivation. "(The mopes) do all the work and take all the risk," said Merced Police Sgt. Rod Dash, a former task force member.

Members of the task force say the pot growers' handiwork includes elaborate tunnel systems dug in the thick vegetation and bushes surrounding the plantation, as well as booby traps that use razor blades tied to branches, fish hooks and trip wires. The traps are employed to ward off both law enforcement and "pot pirates" — people who sneak onto a plantation to steal marijuana.

Some growers are known to hike miles for days on foot, carrying heavy equipment into remote locations often readily accessible to law enforcement only by helicopter. Compston said the gunmen paid by the drug lords are armed with assault rifles — sometimes with more firepower than the guns used by the task force. "You're going into the unknown. A lot of these gardens are really huge," Compston said. "You always have a potential for ambush."

While Mexican cartels are said to be behind many of the illegal marijuana grows, Compston said a wide range of gangs and criminal syndicates with members from nearly every nationality and ethnic background are also involved. White criminal groups are the main indoor producers of marijuana in the U.S., while domestic marijuana cultivation by Asian growers at indoor locations is also increasing, according to the NDIC's Domestic Cannabis Cultivation Assessment 2007. "I don't want to single out one group. They are all doing it in different ways," Compston said.

Some want a kinder, gentler strategy

Some county residents suggest that law enforcement's concern about the amount of marijuana being grown in Merced County is overblown. They believe legalizing it would eventually remove the hegemony of the criminal organizations over the industry.

James "Lex" Buford, former 19th Congressional District Democratic candidate and owner of the Strawberry Alarm Clock smoke shops in Merced and Madera, believes marijuana should be decriminalized, taxed and licensed like tobacco and alcohol — a move he believes would free the marijuana industry, overnight, from the tentacles of organized crime. "From the professional end, (the cartels) don't want it legalized. It would make them have to compete against legitimate businesses," Buford said.

In 1992, Buford, a 53-year-old Madera resident, was acquitted of a marijuana possession-for-sale charge in Madera County after a judge threw out the case for lack of evidence. Buford believes the millions in federal and state dollars that go toward eradicating marijuana plantations and arresting perpetrators could go toward more productive uses. "Do you want to put a guy who uses marijuana in prison for $40,000 a year and keep that man in prison? As taxpayers, what are we getting out of that? Nothing," Buford said.

Last year, Lake County ranked first in California for plants seized and destroyed by law enforcement, according to data from the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting. Merced County was not included on CAMP's 2006 list of counties with marijuana plants, since the list only included plants that were seized by CAMP. Fresno County ranked fourth on that list, with 102,814 plants destroyed that year, while Mariposa County was ranked 19th, with 25,663 plants destroyed.

State's pot crop nearly $14 billion

One-third of the entire nation's marijuana crop blossoms in California, with an estimated value of $13.8 billion, surpassing the combined worth of the state's grapes, vegetables and hay, according to a 2006 report written by marijuana public policy analyst Jon Gettman. Gettman, whose study suggests that marijuana is also the country's No. 1 cash crop, supports removing marijuana from the federal list of Schedule 1 drugs, which includes heroin and LSD (Schedule 1 drugs are determined by the federal government to have a high potential for abuse and no legitimate medicinal value).

Nationwide, some 180,000 people are serving prison sentences for marijuana-related crimes, according to the Department of Justice.

An analysis of FBI data by the Sentencing Project estimates that the U.S. spends around $35 billion a year on drug enforcement — $4 billion of which is spent prosecuting marijuana crimes.

The annual budget of Merced's Multi-Agency Narcotics Task Force is $85,000. The task force is composed of six officers and a sergeant from the California Department of Justice, Merced Police Department, Merced Sheriff's Department, Los Banos Police Department, Atwater Police Department and the California Highway Patrol.

While pot growers may be getting better at hiding their crop, Sheriff Mark Pazin said local law enforcement in recent years has become better equipped to spot the illegal plantations. For example, in 2003 the department bought its first Cessna U206 Super Sky Wagon airplane to help spot outdoor marijuana fields from the sky. Since then, the department has built a fleet of three fixed-wing aircraft.

He said the county has also been successful in obtaining several state and federal grants to help combat illegal marijuana cultivators. Since 2003, the sheriff's department has received $85,000 in state and federal grants to specifically target illegal marijuana. The department is also on track this year to receive a $30,000 federal grant to target marijuana, Dover said.

Although Pazin did not give a specific price tag for the county's total efforts to fight marijuana and illegal drugs, he said it encompasses "hundreds of thousands" in local, state and federal dollars for investigations alone. "And then when you get into the cost of prosecuting these folks, it's a large sum of money," Pazin said.

Sheriff opposes 'medical marijuana'

Not surprisingly, Pazin is a staunch opponent of legalizing marijuana — and believes criminals would still find alternate ways to exploit the illegal drug industry if it were legalized. "The bottom line is marijuana, methamphetamine, cocaine ... it is still illegal," Pazin said. "It's still a carcinogen introduced into the system and it is going to attack the human body."

Law enforcement officials like Pazin also have been critical of Proposition 215, a 1996 state voter-approved measure known as the Compassionate Use Act. Prop. 215 made it legal for residents with a state identification card (which is administered by counties) to possess and cultivate medical marijuana under certain guidelines.

However, Prop. 215 still conflicts with federal law, which does not allow for the use of medical marijuana. Merced County initially challenged the law in court — only to have its challenge rejected by a state judge in December.

Under Prop. 215 there is currently no state regulation for the cultivation of medical marijuana — and how many plants a patient can own is left up to local jurisdictions. In Merced County, a patient with a medical marijuana card (which costs $225) is allowed to own six mature plants and 12 immature plants, in addition to a half-pound of finished product.

The amount of marijuana that a patient can own can varies per jurisdiction. For example, Sonoma County allows possession of three pounds of marijuana and allows cultivation of up to 99 plants, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Some Mercedians favor Prop 215

Charles Igou, a 73-year-old Merced resident, Air Force veteran and medical marijuana user, said law enforcement's hoopla over marijuana has led to the ostracizing of legitimate users. Igou and his son were busted about two years ago for cultivating an indoor grow encompassing 600 marijuana plants, "They treat us like we're these big gangsters," Igou said.

As for his arrest, Igou said he was only producing the marijuana to help medical marijuana users like himself. Igou, who holds a medical marijuana card, said marijuana helps relieve his chronic pain — some of which is from injuries he accumulated while he was in the military. He began smoking pot a few years ago. "For me to even smoke it was a big deal," he said.

In addition to his physical pain, Igou said he is also suffering emotionally because of his son's situation. While Igou spent two days in jail and was given a four-month work furlough for his offense, his son was given a stiffer sentence because police said he was also found with methamphetamine. He is serving his time at a state prison in Susanville. "People need medical help. They don't need incarceration," Igou lamented. "This incarceration thing is ruining the lives of young people."

Grant Wilson, 51, legally owns six medical marijuana plants to treat cirrhosis of the liver and Hepatitis C. He claims he has also been unfairly targeted by law enforcement, arrested twice by Merced Police after marijuana plants were discovered growing in his home. He filed a lawsuit against the department that is pending. "They are putting us in the same category (as criminals)," Wilson said. "They could take that money and create jobs."

Agent Paul Johnson, a member of the multi-agency task force, said the task force generally will not bother medical marijuana users — unless they are in possession of plants or finished product that exceeds local law. "If they are in compliance, we leave," Johnson said. "A guy that's growing 50 plants is not growing them for himself."

Pazin and Johnson take issue with what they consider to be an excessive number of people who are allowed to use medical marijuana under Prop. 215. While Pazin said he is not opposed to medical marijuana for individuals with terminal diseases such as cancer, he believes the law has allowed individuals who don't necessarily need marijuana to grow and use it under the guise of medical necessity. "If someone has a bad day, they want to self-medicate with marijuana," Pazin said. "If an individual has a sore back or something, they want marijuana."

Buford said he disagrees — and that individuals with a medical marijuana ID card should not be forced into explaining why or how they got the card. "Whether I use it for cancer, intense pain or just to wind down and relax, that's between patients and their doctor," he said

Pazin said he's also aghast over the fact that while state law makes it a crime for anyone under the age of 18 to buy cigarettes, there are no restrictions under Prop. 215 that prevent a minor from obtaining a medical marijuana card — a concern that has been echoed by others in law enforcement like Anaheim Police Chief John Welter. Johnson said he recently came across a 14-year-old boy who was able to obtain a medical marijuana card from another county. "He can't buy cigarettes and a lighter, but he can buy marijuana? What's up with that?" Johnson asked. "To me, (Prop. 215) is a joke. They are abusing that law so bad."

How much grass is growing?

With the ever-increasing challenges in eradicating illegal marijuana, Pazin said he's optimistic that the efforts of law enforcement are paying off in Merced County.

Still, he and others admit that they have no idea how much illegal marijuana in the county has yet to be discovered. "If we find it, we bust it — but there is just no way of knowing how much we're missing," Dover said. "We would have to make a lot of guesses."

Compston said he would not be surprised if three times the amount of marijuana that is destroyed has yet to be discovered by law enforcement. "But I really don't know," he said.

Like so much else about this five-leaf plant, the answer is up in smoke.

Reporter Victor A. Patton can be reached at 209-385-2431 or