Drug czar: Feds won't support legalized pot


July 23, 2009-Federal and state agents have arrested 83 people for growing more than $1.2 billion worth of marijuana in an ongoing crackdown on illegal pot gardens in California’s Sierra Nevada range.Picture 19

Local officials said several Mexican marijuana-growing cartels helped set up the grow sites scattered throughout rocky mountainsides of eastern Fresno County, and warned more arrests were likely as the sweep continues.

More than 318,000 marijuana plants were destroyed in the operation, which also netted nearly $41,000 in cash, 25 weapons and two vehicles, Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims said Thursday.

Federal and state agents have arrested 82 people for growing more than $1.2 billion worth of marijuana in California’s Sierra Nevada range.

Gil Kerlikowske, who directs the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, says agents have destroyed more than 314,000 marijuana plants at 70 different grow sites over 10 days. He warns that more arrests are pending.

Kerlikowske was in Fresno County Wednesday to express his support for the sweep, which has netted $41,000 in cash, 26 firearms and three vehicles.

State law now allows marijuana with a prescription, and new legislation would make it legal for all adults, raising $1.4 billion in new taxes. But law enforcement officials say one thing hasn’t changed: pot farms still illegally use — and often scar — California’s forests.

As part of a massive sweep, more than 300 agents from 17 agencies have spent the past 10 days hiking through and flying over Fresno County’s secluded forests to destroy tens of thousands of plants worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Authorities arrested dozens of people and seized dozens of weapons, Fresno County sheriff’s deputy Chris Curtice said.

A drug deal plays out, California-style: A conservatively dressed courier drives a company-leased Smart Car to an apartment on a weekday afternoon. Erick Alvaro hands over a white paper bag to his 58-year-old customer, who inspects the bag to ensure everything he ordered over the phone is there.

An eighth-ounce of organic marijuana buds for treating his seasonal allergies? Check. An eighth of a different pot strain for insomnia? Check. THC-infused lozenges and tea bags? Check and check, with a free herb-laced cookie thrown in as a thank-you gift.

It’s a $102 credit card transaction carried out with the practiced efficiency of a home-delivered pizza – and with just about as much legal scrutiny.

A drug deal plays out, California-style:

A conservatively dressed courier drives a company-leased Smart Car to an apartment on a weekday afternoon. Erick Alvaro hands over a white paper bag to his 58-year-old customer, who inspects the bag to ensure that everything he ordered over the phone is there.

An eighth-ounce of organic marijuana buds for treating his seasonal allergies? Check. An eighth of a different pot strain for insomnia? Check. THC-infused lozenges and tea bags? Check and check, with a free herb-laced cookie thrown in as a thank-you gift.

The federal government is not going to pull back on its efforts to curtail marijuana farming operations, Gil Kerlikowske, director of the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, said Wednesday in Fresno.

The nation’s drug czar, who viewed a foothill marijuana farm on U.S. Forest Service land with state and local officials earlier Wednesday, said the federal government will not support legalizing marijuana.

“Legalization is not in the president’s vocabulary, and it’s not in mine,” he said.

Kerlikowske said he can understand why legislators are talking about taxing marijuana cultivation to help cash-strapped government agencies in California. But the federal government views marijuana as a harmful and addictive drug, he said.

“Marijuana is dangerous and has no medicinal benefit,” Kerlikowske said in downtown Fresno while discussing Operation SOS — Save Our Sierra — a multiagency effort to eradicate marijuana in eastern Fresno County.

A Fresno County Sheriff’s department investigator stands with his AR-15 in front of an illegal marijuana garden found by officers on Monday, July 20, 2009. Officers moving in to shut down such gardens never know what they will be walking in on. Sometimes the suspects are armed and waiting. Other times, the sites are vacated upon arrival.

A Fresno County Sheriff’s Department investigator walks through a forest of marijuana plants growing on public lands west of Shaver Lake on Monday. About 10,000 plants, each with a potential street value of $4,000, were found at the illegal pot garden.

A state Department of Justice investigator sorts through a mountain of illegal marijuana plants chopped out of a garden growing Monday on public lands west of Shaver Lake. The pot was cut down before being destroyed.

Marijuana plants valued at more than $1.26 billion have been confiscated and 82 people arrested over the past 10 days in Fresno County. The operation started last week and is continuing.

By comparison, Tulare County’s leading commodity — milk — was valued at about $1.8 billion in 2008.

Officials say the marijuana-eradication operation will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, but the exact amount won’t be known until agencies can add up staffing, vehicle and other costs.

In Operation SOS, more than 314,000 plants were uprooted in 70 gardens — numbers expected to rise as the enforcement action continues. Agents also seized $41,000 in cash, 26 firearms and three vehicles.

Planning for the operation began in February and focused on marijuana crops being backed by Mexican drug cartels, Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims said.

Mims said many cartels are involved, but she would not name any because the investigation is still under way. All but one person arrested was from Mexico, officials said.

One hundred growers may still be on the loose, said Fresno County sheriff’s Lt. Rick Ko. Many may have gotten rides out of the area, but some could still be in the Sierra, Ko said.

Last year, Fresno County deputies seized 188,000 marijuana plants.

In just one week, nearly twice as many plants were seized, Mims said, “so you can imagine how many we were missing.”

Statewide, more than 5.3 million plants were seized in 2008, or two of every three confiscated in the United States, said Bill Ruzzamenti, director of the Central Valley High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.

“The amount of drugs out there scares most of us,” he said.

Volunteers are going into the gardens to clean up trash, dead animals and pesticides to return the land as close to its original condition as possible. But it could take years for the land to recover, because little can be done once fertilizers and pesticides seep into the ground or stream beds.

“For every acre of marijuana grown, 10 acres are damaged,” said George Anderson with the California Department of Justice. By Marc Benjamin


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *