Humboldt: Combatting large-scale marijuana grows like fighting forest fire with squirt gun

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Editor’s note: This is the first story in a three part series looking at marijuana issues on the North Coast.



The proliferation of large scale, outdoor marijuana grows in Humboldt County has law enforcement agencies sometimes feeling like they’re fighting a forest fire with squirt guns.

Consequently, agencies are trending toward collaboration as this growing season hits full swing, with federal and local police looking to work together to take out some of the most egregious operations.

”It’s one of the most beautiful parts of this country, but it’s just being destroyed by marijuana cultivation,” said Randy Wagner, the U.S Drug Enforcement Agency’s special agent in charge of Northern California operations. “I can tell you, we’re going to be hot and heavy in Humboldt County from here on out.”

The push to crack down on pot grows seems to be due to a confluence of factors that came to a head last summer.

The federal government has been increasingly frustrated with the proliferation of medical marijuana dispensaries, and grow operations in general, throughout California. Further, because the state’s Department of Justice’s Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement’s budget was essentially gutted — in the midst of an ongoing fiscal crisis last summer — the feds seem intent on picking up the slack.

It seems to have been two events late last summer that really pushed things over the tipping point.

 Fort Bragg City Councilman Jere Melo was shot and killed by a mentally ill man at the scene of an opium poppy grow on timber land in Mendocino County. The shooting — and subsequent month-long manhunt for Melo’s killer — drew new attention to the dangers surrounding what officials see as increasing lawlessness on park and timber lands throughout the region.In the wake of Melo’s death, the League of California Cities Redwood Division pledged to make cracking down on illegal grow operations a major focal point of its efforts this year, according to Division Director and Arcata City Councilman Mark Wheetley.

Just days after Melo was killed, Humboldt County Sheriff Mike Downey and Humboldt County District Attorney Paul Gallegos took to the air and did some flyovers of Southern Humboldt County. Downey said he got off the plane that day knowing he had to make going after some of the county’s largest grows his chief priority this summer.

”We just saw large commercial grow after large commercial grow,” Downey said, adding that the scope of the marijuana production is staggering. “When I saw that and realized that the state of California is broke, I realized we have to do something.”

marijuana culture in the county has changed, morphing from the largely locally raised operators who kept a low profile, to being made up of growers who come from outside the area and cultivate on a massive scale with no regard for the environment or the community.

”They’ve come in like the gold rush days trying to make a buck, leaving in their wake environmental devastation that Humboldt County has to deal with,” Downey said, pointing to a recent bust near Hoopa that saw more than 26,000 plants eradicated. “That’s not a mom and pop trying to make a little smoke to help pay their taxes.”

So, Downey reached out to the feds. Wagner said they were happy to get the call.

”Those guys need help, and we’re going to provide it,” Wagner said.

Everyone realizes prioritization must be the name of the game, as uprooting every plant in the county — or even a majority of them — is a impossible.

”By no means do I have the time or the resources to go after every marijuana grow in Humboldt County,” Downey said. “I can’t bite the whole apple here in Humboldt County, so I’m deciding to try to take the most egregious chunk out of it.”

Downey said the priority will be large scale operations on park and timber lands that cause the most environmental damage — the kinds of grows that are typically protected by men with guns and necessitate heavy soil grading, large water diversions and generally use high powered insecticides, rodenticides and fertilizers.

Pointing to a recent study by UC Davis researchers that found high powered rodenticides at illegal marijuana grows were the likely cause of a high number of deaths of pacific fishers — a member of the weasel family and a candidate for federal protection — Wagner and Downey said they believe public support for a crack down is growing.

Wagner said he attended a recent California League of Cities Redwood Division meeting on the subject in Arcata and walked away with a clear message.

”What I was hearing from the council people and the locals there is that culturally this has always been there in Humboldt County, but now people realize this has gotten out of hand,” Wagner said. “Not being from California, you hear the Pacific Northwest referred to as a ‘tree-hugger’ area. Well, these are tree-hugger issues that are affecting the land right now. I think people up there realize, ‘We can’t turn a blind eye anymore.’”

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