Out of the dark

Can California’s legal marijuana industry help stop black market growers from decimating public lands?

DFW wardens raid a cartel grow site.

DFW wardens raid a cartel grow site.

Photos courtesy of California Department of Fish and Wildlife

This story was made possible by a grant from Tower Cafe.
This is an expanded version of a story that ran in the April 20, 2017, issue.

John Nores hunched over his partner, who had just been shot through both legs with an assault rifle. A few feet away, a marijuana grower linked to organized crime lay dead in the bushes. Another grower who’d leveled a gun at Nores was now bolting away from the drifting smoke.

Waiting to see if a helicopter would arrive before his partner bled out, Nores, a state game warden, mentally inventoried his surroundings: Just ahead, 23,000 marijuana plants cut a swath through the Sierra Azul Preserve, a rolling hideaway above Los Gatos swept in old coast oaks, high, glistening brome and pools of wood mint and elks clover. Much of that beauty had been razed to make way for endless rows of pale green stalks.

It was August 2005. Scenes like this one were beginning to play out across California’s public lands: The mass clear-cutting of trees, the full-scale terracing of hillsides, herbicides and rodenticides seeping into groundwater, makeshift landfills torn through the soil, and shell casings and empty propane tanks littering the habitat. And then there were the poisoned animals, the ones that gradually died as their organs burned from within.

As California’s marijuana black market surged to billion-dollar profits, it left behind dead bodies and deep scars in the lands. For Nores, who still works for the since-renamed California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the fact that his partner lived didn’t change the reality: flying bullets meant the game was changing.

“Our wardens have been in four more gunfights with cartel members in grows since that shootout,” Nores said in a recent interview. “In terms of the threat to public lands, at this point there are 3,000 to 4,000 clandestine cartel grows in California on any given year. … Right now we’re able to clean up and restore about 44 percent of the grows we go into.”

That leaves more than half of these forests essentially decimated—abandoned pathfinders for an environmental catastrophe unfolding across a hodgepodge of local, state and federal jurisdictions.

Even in California, where medical cannabis has been legal for decades, the marijuana black market is enormous, wringing an estimated $6 billion in dark money a year, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs & Crime.

Yet that illegal commerce is about to compete head-on with the Golden State’s new legal, licensed and regulated cannabis industry, thanks to a voter-approved ballot initiative. According to some experts, mainstream marijuana could help provide the revenue streams to take California’s public lands back for the public—but only if the new presidential administration doesn’t overrule the state.

Land of milk and poison

For Stephen Frick, assistant special agent in charge of U.S. Forest Service Law Enforcement & Investigations, a macabre picture helps sum up what his teams continue to find in California’s pristine landscapes: It’s the recent image of a federal biologist standing over the carcasses of a gray fox and turkey vulture. The fox died first, from direct poisoning, before the vulture collapsed while picking off its remains. As the biologist looked down, he noticed flies were dying once they crawled on the fox’s putrid flesh.

“That’s how toxic the blood poisoning was,” Frick said. “That’s the level of secondary poisoning that happens in these grows. In the 1990s, we were seeing small gardens, 20 to 30 plants and maybe a box of Miracle-Gro. Now it’s upwards of 30,000 plants at some sites, along with a serious increase in the chemicals and hazardous materials.”

Among the liquid nightmares Frick’s enforcement officers keep discovering is Carbofuran, an agent so noxious it’s been banned by the Environmental Protection Agency since 2010. But outlaw growers from Mexico still have access to Carbofuran and use it often for their megacrops. Frick said that a quarter of a teaspoon can kill a 300-pound black bear. That’s why his special agents can now scroll through a carousel of snuff images on their cellphones: poisoned bears, poisoned mountain lions, poisoned mule deer and poisoned foxes—all stiff and strewn across the beauty of the national forests. The pacific fisher, a whiskered, cub-faced member of the weasel family, is one of the threatened species increasingly being killed by Carbofuran.

Outlaw growers set this trap on public lands.

“Five years ago, we started seeing a whole lot of dead animals at these sites,” Frick recalled.

Nores confirmed California’s game wardens are documenting the same toll in state parks and other protected ecosystems.

“Just a couple of teaspoons of Carbofuran getting into a stream can poison everything drinking from it for two to five miles down the way,” Nores explained. “This is a painful, horrible death for wildlife.”

Even more costly is trying to reverse the direct devastation to habitat. Reforesting stripped lands and cleaning contaminated soil results in huge price tags. Nores said his agency spends roughly $40,000 per acre on cleanup. The U.S. Forest Service is spending similar amounts, with Frick noting that, for a single case in 2015 in the Trinity Shasta National Forest, his crews spent $30,000 just on Carbofuran removal.

The costs of dealing with illegal grows on public lands hits taxpayers on two levels. The first comes when law enforcement agencies raid a site, destroy its crops and arrest anyone present so that scientists can attempt to stop chemical contamination. This process of reclamation simply makes the area safe for people and animals to move through. The attempt to actually reverse long-term environmental damage—generically called restoration—is significantly more expensive.

Given that some cartel grows contain not only armed guards, but also covered traps that include spike-laden punji pits, keeping hikers, campers and anglers safe remains the priority. Frick said it’s hard enough for federal authorities to reclaim areas with their limited funds, let alone engage in large-scale restoration. In fact, last year, that challenge only intensified.

“In 2016, we saw a 50 percent increase in the number of plants on public lands from the year before, and 75 percent of those had dangerous pesticides,” Frick observed. “We give the problem all the attention we can, but like every agency in the U.S., we’re short-handed.”

California officials are feeling equally overwhelmed. At the moment, the Department of Fish and Wildlife can afford to reclaim less than half the sites it takes back from the cartels.

“The limitations on resources makes it hard,” Nores acknowledged. “We want to do better.”

Legal growers vs. criminal polluters

Based on trends in Colorado, there’s emerging evidence that supplying consumers with regulated cannabis cuts into demand for the cartels’ product. That’s according to a 2016 study by Tom Wainwright of the Economist. But the black side of the market still casts a long shadow in California. DFW game wardens reported locating roughly half a million marijuana plants on the state’s public lands last year. The U.S. Forest Service documented 1.4 million plants in the same window. Yet, as bad as that year was, both agencies have reason to hope 2018 may see gradual improvement.

That’s when California’s legal marijuana growers indirectly join the battle against illegal ones by paying hundreds of millions of dollars, by most estimates, into the state’s coffers. Voters sought this windfall last November by passing the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, which the Legislative Analyst’s Office predicts could eventually pump up to a billion dollars a year into the state’s overall economy.

Illustration by Serene Lusano

While cannabis sales tax goes to the general fund, 20 percent of the new marijuana cultivation and excise tax is slated for environmental protection. California’s DFW and state park officials will control how the funds are deployed.

So far, only a handful of local governments are sanctioning, regulating and taxing marijuana cultivation. But that won’t stop California officials from collecting their taxes from growers across the state. According to Timothy B. Morland, director of legislation and regulatory affairs for Board of Equalization Chairwoman Fiona Ma, California will get its revenues from legal cultivators even if those businesses are ignoring a county or city prohibition.

In marked contrast, the city and county governments that have adopted marijuana cultivation ordinances will have new local-level firepower for code and law enforcement operations.

Among them is Mendocino County. Case logs from the U.S. Attorney’s Office show that illicit grows inflicted major environmental damage in the Mendocino National Forest over the last three years. With county officials now collecting fees and a tax, Mendocino has made safeguarding its habitats one of four priorities for spending the new money.

“It’s a whole culture shift around cultivation, from going from a criminal act to a regulatory program that’s in the light,” said Mendocino County CEO Carmel Angelo. “And now the sheriff’s office should be having more time to actually work on those big trespass grows.”

Sonoma County, which boasts a treasure trove of state parks, regional parks and open preserves, is also regulating marijuana cultivation. County Supervisor Susan Gorin said that’s because illicit operations have hurt nearly every scenic space within her community.

“We’ve even found a grow in Jack London State Park,” Gorin observed. “We have some incredibly beautiful terrain, but the challenge has been identifying (illegal grows) and then what to do next. … The sheriff’s department has had to add them to the list. They often didn’t have the resources to wait for the people lurking in them, let alone clean up after them.”

Sonoma County begins collecting its cultivation and manufacturing taxes for cannabis in July. Gorin said the Board of Supervisors will spend some of the revenue on code enforcement, while evaluating how much is left for environmental cleanup and the sheriff’s targeting of black market grows.

But there remains a glaring threat to such state and locals plans. In February, newly confirmed U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a warning of unspecified nature regarding those states allowing recreational marijuana use. Tellingly, the Trump administration also took down the web page for the Marijuana Resource Center, which was under the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. Local and state officials who are deep in the fight for environmental protection are still hoping California’s sovereignty wins out.

That said, some working in the emerging marijuana industry recognize the new tax streams alone may not be enough to return public lands to their natural states. Knowing the scope of the problem, a group of cannabis business owners have formed Restore California, an organization seeking nonprofit status to work on environmental protection.

Restore California plans on hosting ongoing fundraisers within the industry to raise money for DFW’s Marijuana Enforcement Team. Restore’s president, Melissa Sanchez, is an attorney who’s worked with medical marijuana growers since 2009. Sanchez told SN&R that the group’s mission is to give legal growers an easy way to prove their commitment to conservation.

“This allows people in the regulated industry to separate themselves as legitimate growers from people who are criminals growing on public and private lands,” Sanchez stressed. “What better way to do that then by taking a stand for the environment?”