Monday, September 5, 2011

The wild west in our backyard.

The sinister murder of City Councilman Jere Melo in Fort Bragg several weeks ago highlights what has become a serious public safety issue, which also has environmental health implications. Melo was murdered in a remote area of Mendocino County by a marijuana grower squatting on forest land. Melo’s job was to manage thousands of acres of forest, and he was on location investigating reports of illegal pot growing on that land when he was killed.

The rural economy in Northern California is inextricably tied to the marijuana industry. Marijuana has become a major cash crop in areas where a once hearty forestry and fishing industry was the backbone of a robust rural economy. For example, some news sources report that marijuana accounts for two-thirds of the Mendocino County economy.

While much of the marijuana growing in California is tied to the legal medical industry, certain types of illicit grows create monumental environmental and public safety problems. One of the greatest concerns surrounding the industry regards the illegal large-scale growth of marijuana in California’s national parks. These grows pose major environmental hazards, as they often correlated with toxic dumping, illegal water diversions, and hazardous pesticides.

As a recent article on this subject in Legal Planet points out, marijuana industry is a hot button issue among California’s residents. This is true among California's rural populations too. Many locals whose families have been in the area logging or fishing for generations are outraged as outsiders move into rural areas to claim a stake in the burgeoning industry. These outsiders are often from out of state altogether. Many such locals are vehemently opposed to the marijuana industry. Other rural residents have begun growing marijuana as traditional forms of income have become harder to survive on.

For the last several decades, the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP) has carried out raids, flying helicopters over sites in Northern California in search of illegal grows. Until recently, CAMP was known as a force that would terrorize small “mom and pop” farms. Many rural residents grew to dread the sound of CAMP helicopters in the summer sky.

However, recently the campaign has shifted focus to an issue which rural residents unanimously support. That focus, the New York Times reports, is the eradication of illegal grows in “state, county and federal parks, which Mexican drug cartels and other large-scale growers have found to be excellent locations for illicit farms, the authorities say.” These are the type of grows that Melo was investigating when he was murdered.

However, drastic budget cuts this last year threaten to undermine the state’s major mechanism for eradicating these dangerous grows.
The federal Drug Enforcement Administration has vowed to keep financing its part of the program, but since CAMP is operated by the state, the state’s money appears crucial for it to continue. CAMP’s 2010 operations cost taxpayers more than $3 million. . . .The state budget for 2012 cuts $71 million from the Division of Law Enforcement, including the narcotics bureau.
While the issue of illicit marijuana grows in national parks has not received much attention in major media news until recently, law and order types and rural residents, have been aware of the problem for quite some time.

At the 2009 California Bar Association’s Environmental Law Conference at Yosemite, an entire panel and afternoon hike was focused on educating the public about the extent of, and hazards associated with, the problem. Led by a park warden and an officer from the California Department of Fish and Game, the panel highlighted both the environmental degradation and the safety issues posed by these grows. Squatters in Yosemite have been caught poaching animals, damming creeks to create reservoirs filled with pesticides long-banned in the United States, and with illicit firearms.

While Californians, rural and urban alike, agree that large scale marijuana grows on forest lands pose a serious problem that needs to be addressed, they do not agree on the best methods for doing so. Some argue that the only solution for stopping illegal grows is to legalize marijuana. Others are vehemently opposed to this option and believe that illicit grows will continue and, even increase, if marijuana is legalized. Regardless of how the problem is tackled, the tragic death of Jere Melo highlights the urgent need to address the issue.


Scarecrow said...

If marijuana is legalized, I don't think rural producers would be able to compete with the corporate producers that would no doubt jump into the market. That begs the question: what would rural producers do?

Since the fishing and forestry industries continue to struggle, production of some other illicit product could take on greater prominence. Policy makers might want to consider a subsidy for rural (or at least small-scale) pot grows if the drive for cannabis legalization ever gets serious.

Jason said...

Whether marijuana is legalized or not will do little to actually stop the illegal use of state and federal land for illicit uses. Growers will turn from growing marijuana to manufacturing methanphetamines, which will cause far worse environmental problems.

To me it seems the best solution is to give law enforcement more means in which to patrol the areas being used in order for early detection and to catch the offenders.

ScottA. said...

The impact of the illegal marijuana industry on the North Coast is tremendous. There are some who estimate that half (if not more) of Humboldt's economy is based on the growing of pot.

A high school friend of mine now works at a local car dealership. At the end of every growing season, a number of young men will come onto the lot and purchase a new pick-up, in full, with cash. No one says anything, but they all "know" where the money came from. The illegal income makes a big impact on the whole local economy.

Many folks take a wink and nod attitude towards marijuana growing, but ever since the "Mexicans" arrived, that attitude is shifting.

It is true that marijuana grows were protected by booby traps and guns long before Latino cartels started operating heavily in public lands, but the aggressiveness of the cartel guards has shocked many.

Legalization may help, but I am afraid that even after legalization that some tax dodgers will continue to operate illegal grows. If there is still an incentive to illegally grow marijuana, I worry that we won't be rid of the Latino drug cartels. We will probably still need CAMP in a marijuana legal world.

oceguera said...

During the last major elections, it was interesting to see how both sides of this political debate used racialized notions to incite a reaction from taxpaying citizens. This notion that drug related violence comes from outside our national borders (which manifested during the 1980s’ campaign of ‘The War on Drugs’) has only fueled liberal and conservative discourse surrounding the increase militarization of the border.
Many proponents were using the same language of the 1930s prohibitionist to describe the current state of cannabis in the country-which was also a highly racialized discourse, blaming Italian gangs for the deteriorating morality in the country.

Azar said...

This is an extremely complicated problem that has many untested "solutions" that could backfire. Like Jason, I'm not sure that legalization is the solution here. This is not merely about fighting illegal marijuana- it's about stopping vigilantes who are causing all kinds of serious damage and who have no respect for justice or the law. I also believe that police and law enforcement officials need to have increased resources and authority in the region.