Who’s winning on the pot front?

When California Attorney General Bill Lockyer announced recently that the state’s Campaign Against Marijuana Planting, or CAMP, had eradicated a record 1.2 million marijuana plants this year, it signaled success in the so-called war on drugs, right?

Well, maybe not. In fact, if the campaign’s goal is to make the herb less available on the street, it’s a failure. Marijuana reportedly is as plentiful as ever in Chico and elsewhere.

Despite CAMP’s 23 years of eradication efforts and expenditures nationally of around $4 billion a year for marijuana eradication, the 2006 National Drug Threat Assessment states: “Marijuana availability is high and stable or increasing slightly.”

Some drug experts charge that one consequence of CAMP’s effort has been to push out small-scale growers, leaving a void that has been filled by Mexican drug cartels, which have the capital to mount sophisticated growing operations hidden away on isolated public lands.

When CAMP conducts a raid, it makes its presence known by flying helicopters to the grow site in broad daylight, said Kent Shaw, spokesman for CAMP and the California Department of Justice. This year only 18 arrests were made in conjunction with the 1.2 million plants seized.

“The people working for the Mexican drug traffickers, who set up most of these grows, are not cooperative and are oftentimes heavily armed,” Shaw said. “It makes no sense to put our officers’ lives in danger. Most of the guards flee the scene by the time our helicopters land at the site.”

It’s impossible to know, of course, how many pot farms CAMP doesn’t find, but there’s no question that some or even many of them are missed.

“We’re living in a real prohibition era right now,” said Shauna Quinn, director of Chico State University’s Campus Alcohol and Drug Education Center. “Just like with alcohol, the prohibition of marijuana is leading to more organized crime and does little to stop the availability and its use.”

“The planting has increased, so seizures have increased,” said Quinn, who also instructs the class Drugs in Our Society at Chico State. “It’s simple supply and demand; there’s demand for it, so someone will supply it.”

That’s because marijuana—thanks to prohibition—is worth its weight in gold. As Lockyer noted, the 1.2 million plants seized were worth $4.9 billion. That’s probably an inflated figure based on value at full maturity, but it certainly gives a sense of just how lucrative the pot growing business is.

“Our agents are finding larger and larger gardens worth tens of millions,” Lockyer said. “It is not unusual for a single garden to have 20,000 plants.”

With larger gardens come larger problems. They’re easier for CAMP to find, so each bust pushes the highly organized cartels farther into the wilderness and onto public lands in wilderness areas and national forests.

“Seventy-five percent of CAMP’s seizures occur on public lands,” said Robin Schwanke, spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office. “This causes major environmental damage because of the use of pesticides and re-routing of water to the large-scale gardens.”

For the pot cops, that’s another reason for going after the growers. For CAMP’s critics, it’s another unfortunate consequence of the eradication effort.

Eradication and capitalism drive growers to these “obscure” locales for farming, explained Bruce Mirken, spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, which advocates for decriminalization and regulation of the plant.

“We never hear of clandestine vineyards popping up in state parks. That’s because we regulate and control the sale of wine,” Mirken said.

“You can eradicate marijuana no more than you can eradicate dirt,” Mirken continued. “Groups like CAMP are just the bureaucracy’s way of creating jobs for law enforcement.”

Referring to Harvard University economist Jeffrey Miron’s essay in Pot Politics: Marijuana and the Cost of Prohibition, Mirken said the United States spends close to $8 billion a year arresting and jailing marijuana offenders, yet forgoes more than $6 billion annually in lost tax revenue if marijuana sales were regulated.

“ ‘We Card Under 18’ signs are in every gas station in America, so that if you aren’t 18 you can’t buy tobacco,” Mirken said. “At least with this drug, which has proven far more deadly than marijuana, we have control through regulations and age restrictions. Have you ever seen a drug dealer who cared about age?”

The current system hurts teenagers most, not the drug cartels, Quinn said. Teens are starting to smoke marijuana at an earlier age, when learning and social skills are still developing and can be hampered. Instead of eradication and punishment, “we need research-based prevention programs that make kids think about why they feel the need to smoke,” Quinn contended.

Dealing with marijuana use as a health problem, not a criminal problem, Quinn said, will lead to a decrease in demand for the drug and with it a decrease in supply.

“By prevention, I don’t mean, ‘Drugs are bad; don’t do them,’ “ Quinn said. “In middle school, a health educator doing more active peer education, allowing students to share their stories and experience about drugs, then showing the health perspective—that’s prevention.”

After 17 years at CADEC, Quinn knows the effects early use of marijuana has on college students.

“I meet with students who may have started smoking pot in seventh grade, and sure, they could smoke every day and make it through high school,” she said. “Then they get to college and simply aren’t prepared to succeed at the university level.”