The wrenching legacy of illegal marijuana farms took center stage at a meeting at the Fresno County Farm Bureau where participants included a woman whose husband was shot and killed while investigating reports of a marijuana farm on private timberland.
They also heard from the leader of an organization of mostly small farming operations in California who said use of illegal pesticides and other practices on those farms threaten the future of legitimate endeavors, in part due to food safety issues.
And the patriarch of a mainstay of Fresno County tourism said an illicit marijuana operation eradicated from near his produce market, a highlight of the much publicized Blossom Trail, has his family considering whether to leave the location because of increased criminal activity that has come in its wake.
Their observations came in addition to presentations by the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office and U.S. Attorney’s Office on steps being taken to stop the unlawful growing of marijuana within farms on the floor of the valley and in the wooded foothills and mountains surrounding it.
“It’s not about the medicine; it’s about the money,” said Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims, who hammers that point home frequently in talks where her contention is that the grows have little to do with the change in state law that opened the door to growing some marijuana for medicinal purposes.
Mims said more than 200 illegal grows have been identified this year in Fresno County.
From the podium, Mims offered her condolences to Madeleine Melo, the widow of Jere Melo, the murdered forester and Fort Bragg Councilmember. Melo, who traveled to the Fresno forum from her home in Mendocino County, formed the Jere Melo Foundation to keep his memory alive by pointing out the dangers posed by unlawful cultivation sites, including pollution of water.
From the audience, Manuel Cunha Jr., president of the Nisei Farmers League based in Fresno, said contamination caused by illegal marijuana poses “a real nightmare” for small farming operations. He said he would like to see more state and federal attention to the issue from agencies that could include the Department of Homeland Security.
He also said absentee landowners need to be held liable for unlawful growing operations.
Dennis Simonian, owner and operator of Simonian Farms, a popular tourist attraction, agreed with Cunha’s concerns over the threat to food safety and said a marijuana grow near his market “brought crime to what was a rural community” even after sheriff’s deputies removed the illegal plants.
“We have to take back our community,” he said, pointing to thefts of produce grown near his market and the stealing of copper wire. He said the odor of the marijuana was so great that doors on a new building under construction at the market had to be kept closed.
The day before the sheriff spoke, Mims held a press conference in which she warned out-of-county growers of marijuana to stay away.
Her warning came after a gun battle erupted between motorists, the wounding of one man and the discovery of marijuana growing in between rows of sour melons, squash and tomatoes. Mims said the land on which the marijuana was grown had been leased by people from Sacramento and the Bay area.
Public safety risk
Sheriff’s officials say is not uncommon to find illegal marijuana grows tucked in with legitimate crops. Nor is it uncommon to find absentee ownership of land where it is grown.
Sheriff’s Lt. Rick Ko showed several slides of illegal grows, including one that was tucked into a corn field in the Dos Palos area. He said the crop is so hardy it is difficult to remove and separate from legitimate crops. Instead of trying to separate those crops, he said, deputies who previously might have used machetes now must use “chainsaws and tractors” and they remove everything.
Several deputies have been overcome by heat exhaustion as they worked to eradicate grows.
Ko traced a history of enforcement that was highly successful in quashing illegal grows in public forests at the same time that the number of grows on the Valley floor exploded. High yield, larger plants are now more common, he said, averaging 3 to 8 pounds per plant.
He said members of law enforcement have followed vehicles transporting marijuana grown in the valley to points across the nation, including the seizure of 185 pounds of marijuana bound for customers at Boston College and being transported by a driver wearing a National Guard uniform “so people would think he was legitimate.”
He said 40 shipments have been intercepted. Some of those receiving shipments are receiving sentences up to 20 years, he said.
Ko admits frustration with the ease with which people can obtain recommendations from doctors that allow them to grow marijuana for personal use. And he says the production that could be expected from an exempted 99 plants far exceeds the amount that any one person could use.
Taking legal action against absentee landlords is also not simple, said Karen Escobar, assistant U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of California. She said they can use an “innocent owner defense” that the person has no knowledge of the grow.
At the same time, she said, “most landowners comply” with eradication of an illegal grow when her office sends them a letter making them aware of it.
As for the likelihood of Homeland Security entering the enforcement picture, Escobar said that is not expected “unless it can be shown there is an international nexus.”
Escobar advised landowners to include a clause in lease agreements to the effect that immediate eviction would result in case of any illegal activity, including marijuana cultivation.
She warned that legitimate growers and landowners should not “take the law into your hands,” pointing to the seizure of 82 firearms during what was called Operation Mercury in the six-county Eastern District that ranges from Kern to Stanislaus counties. That operation resulted in charges being brought against 84 people, conviction of 25 and seizure of hundreds of thousands of marijuana plants and forfeiture of some properties.
Escobar said it would help greatly if there were an agent of the Environmental Protection Agency in the region so that water could be tested to bring charges on contamination of land and water.
Mims warned of the public safety risk posed by the illegal grows. She cited as an example the murder of a 16-year-old boy who stole some marijuana from a Fresno County grow site.
“It took us months to find his body,” she said. “This is a significant public safety risk.”
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