Hazards to the Public

Throughout the United States, various initiatives to legalize or decriminalize Marijuana have made significant changes in the enforcement of laws surrounding the use, sales, cultivation, and even the taxation of this plant. While many of these changes in legislation deal with the use and cultivation of Marijuana for personal or medicinal use, they don’t address the threat that the large scale cultivation of Marijuana has upon public safety and publicly managed lands. As the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) states, “Marijuana is the only major drug of abuse grown within the U.S. borders.” (DEA web) As such, not only does the cultivation and harvest of Marijuana on public lands remain illegal, it has become an area in which Mexican drug trafficking organizations have become dominant in the production of illegal Marijuana for distribution in the United States. This occurs for a number of reasons. First, many of the publicly managed lands within the United States, such as national parks and forests are located in remote and heavily vegetated areas that not only provide some level of protection against discovery and eradication, but they also provide excellent water sources and fertile soils with which to grow and cultivate large quantities of Marijuana.

Second, Mexican drug trafficking organizations find it much easier and profitable to cultivate, and harvest Marijuana on public lands in the United States where they are closer to their intended drug markets. As such, Mexican drug traffickers not only increase their drug profits by having their Marijuana supply closer to their intended markets, but they don’t have to deal with the many issues of smuggling and transporting the drug across the U.S./ Mexican border. Around 2005, local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies began to pay particular attention to the increase in the number of the illegal Marijuana grows that were occurring on public lands. While indoor grows can provide Mexican drug trafficking organizations with a drug containing a high potency level of THC, Tetrahyrocannabinol (the psychoactive ingredient in Marijuana), they can’t provide the same high level of production that the outdoor grows can, especially with the large scale production level closer to drug markets in the United States. As Phil Taylor explains in a 2009 article that appeared in the New York Times, the control which Mexican drug cartels have gathered in the illegal Marijuana cultivation and distribution market in the United States has become especially noticeable in the number of illegal plant seizures and the environmental impact upon the land:

“We're seeing a shift to more organized grows and larger grows," said Kevin McGrath (a BLM law enforcement officer)..."They're being set up and run through the cartels, and it's becoming a big chunk of our work load.”…The Sierra (Nevada Mountains) operations are the latest in a growing number of illegal plantations run by foreign suppliers who have moved north of the U.S.-Mexico border where they are closer to U.S. drug markets. Of the 82 individuals arrested in the "Save our Sierras" sting, all but two were Mexican or some other foreign nationality. Bankrolled by sophisticated drug cartels, suppliers are sidestepping border patrols to grow in relative obscurity on Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service lands across the West and even into the Southeast…The drug plantations are as much an environmental menace as they are a public safety threat. Growers in Fresno County used a cocktail of pesticides and fertilizers many times stronger than what is used on residential lawns to cultivate their crop. "This stuff leaches out pretty quickly," said Shane Krogen, executive director of the High Sierra Volunteer Trail Crew in charge of helping clear the land of chemicals and trash so it can begin its slow restoration. While the chemical pesticides kill insects and other organisms directly, fertilizer runoff contaminates local waterways and aids in the growth of algae and weeds. The vegetation in turn impedes water flows that are critical to frogs, toads and salamanders in the Kings and San Joaquin rivers. (Taylor, web)

As Taylor’s article indicates, not only do these illegal grow operations maintained primarily by Mexican drug trafficking organizations pose threats to public and environmental safety, they have become threats against which law enforcement and other government agencies must take action. However, while Taylor emphasizes the size and impact which these illegal Marijuana grows present to publicly managed lands, he doesn’t address the extent and measures which Mexican drug trafficking organizations will take to protect their operations and investments. The use of firearms such as semi-automatic pistols and large caliber rifles have become an increasing and inherent element associated with illegal Marijuana grow operations, and have become one which law enforcement officers must address when conducting eradication operations. In an article which he produced for outsideonline.com, an on-line travel publication, Damon Taber provides an interesting discussion to vacationers and tourists on some of the problems which California law enforcement agencies are experiencing on public lands with armed Mexican drug cartel members—a scenario which proves just as relative to the situation taking place on the opposite site of the mountains in Nevada:

Many fearful locals have simply abandoned long-cherished trails and camping spots, and deadly firefights between growers and Mendocino cops have increased. In July 2010, a sheriff’s deputy shot and killed a 24-year-old grower named Angel Hernandez-Farias during a raid in the woods. Three weeks later, Mendocino deputies raided another remote garden and killed a grower wielding a rifle. Two more growers were killed during raids in nearby counties that summer, an unprecedented level of violence in what had once been a peaceable enclave of hippies, pear farmers, and mountain recluses. In August 2010, long-latent civic fury spilled into the open at a county board of supervisors meeting that took place in Covelo, a tiny hardscrabble town bordering the Mendocino forest and itself notorious for producing prodigious amounts of pot. A fish-and-game commissioner named Paul Trouette, who’d just spent three days in the woods, reported seeing “carloads of Hispanic cartel-type vehicles flooding the roadways.” A store owner claimed the forest was under “armed foreign invasion.” Two ranchers and a teacher said growers had shot at them. Shaking with rage, another rancher demanded that supervisors declare a state of emergency and use the National Guard to clear the forest, a move without precedent in U.S. history. “It’s an occupation,” said rancher Chris Brennan. “I’ve been shot at. They’re wiping out our deer. They’re poisoning the bears. We might as well change the name to Cartel National Forest.” (Taber, web)

In October, 2008, detectives of the Trident Narcotics Task Force in Winnemucca, Nevada assisted members of the Bureau of Land Management and the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office Special Response Team (SRT) in the eradication of an illegal Marijuana grow near Greeley Crossing located along the north fork of the Little Humboldt River in Northern Humboldt County Nevada. This illegal Marijuana grow, which is situated in a remote river canyon approximately 45 minutes north of Paradise Valley, Nevada, became newsworthy when three BLM biologists who were closing some of the gates along the river for the winter season stumbled across three Hispanic male individuals who were tending the illegal Marijuana grow. Subsequently, the three Hispanic male individuals held the three BLM biologists at gunpoint believing that they were law enforcement personnel. Fortunately, the three Hispanic male individuals released the three BLM biologists, and none of them received any injuries. The following morning, law enforcement personnel from BLM, the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office, and the Trident Narcotics Task Force responded to the area, and had to coordinate a tactical entry into the river canyon area from three different locations. While the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office SRT descended into the northern portion of the river canyon from the high ground, narcotic task force officers and BLM rangers secured exit points along the eastern portion of the river canyon should any suspects attempt to flee. During their search of the grow site, law enforcement personnel did not locate the three suspects, but were able to eradicate the grow site and destroy the Marijuana plants and the harvested Marijuana buds before the growers had the chance to transport them from the area for sales and distribution.

These examples demonstrate the safety concerns involving illegal Marijuana grows for which the public should be aware when conducting activities in some of the remote public lands throughout the State of Nevada. Indicators of a possible outdoor Marijuana grow site include, but are not limited to the following:

     -the strong odor of fresh Marijuana
     -irrigation tubing,
     -diverted streams,
     -specially constructed water storage basins,
     -pesticides and chemicals,
     -rodent killer such as DeCon,
     -cultivation tools and equipment such as shovels, rakes, and picks,
     -makeshift or hidden campsites

Should you discover indicators that an outdoor area which you believe may be used as a Marijuana grow site, the DPS Investigation Division advises you to immediately and safely leave the area, and contact them at the following:

     -(775)-684-7453 during regular business hours
     -(775)-687-0400 after hours, weekends, and holidays
     -911 if an emergency

WORKS CITED:

Taylor, Phil. “Cartels Turn U.S. Forests into Marijuana Plantations, Creating Toxic Mess.” The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/gwire/2009/07/30/30greenwire-cartels-turn-us-forests-into-marijuana-plantat-41908.html?pagewanted=all. 23 Feb. 2015.

Taber, Damon. “Weed Wackers.” Outsideonline.com. http://www.outsideonline.com/outdoor-adventure/politics/Weed-Whackers-.html#sthash.KyKiWvcF.dpuf. 25 Feb. 2015. Web.

United States Drug Enforcement Administration. DEA Programs: Cannabis Eradication. United States Drug Enforcement Administration. http://www.dea.gov/ops/cannabis.shtml. 23 Feb. 2015. Web.