Marijuana growers move to Calif. farms
By Gosia Wozniacka and Marcus Wohlsen The Associated Press
| Posted: Monday, October 17, 2011 9:05 am |
SANGER, Calif. — This summer, California narcotics officers have
pulled millions fewer pot plants from the state's remote forests than
in past years. The reason, investigators say, is that drug
traffickers have come down out of the mountains to plant pot in plain
sight in backyards and on prime farmland, where California's medical
marijuana law makes them tougher to bust.
Historically, growers of large-scale illicit pot gardens relied on
the cover and isolation of California's wildernesses to protect their
plants. Last year, the state's annual campaign to root out such grows
netted more than 4.3 million plants worth billions of dollars. This
year, however, the number of plants seized dropped by almost half.
State anti-drug agents say traffickers have migrated to California's
Central Valley, one of the country's most fertile agricultural zones.
From here, they say pot grown on tree-sized plants makes its way not
just to California's storefront marijuana dispensaries but also to
street dealers across the country.
In Fresno County alone, investigators typically expect to find 60 to
80 large grows in the mountains, said Lt. Richard Ko, head of
marijuana eradication for the county sheriff's office, in response to
inquiries from The Associated Press. In 2011, they found nine, he
said. Meanwhile, the number of large pot farms on the Valley floor
rose to 121 countywide, up from 37 in 2010.
Instead of huge, isolated gardens, traffickers have turned to
networks of smaller growing operations, investigators say.
Their smaller size keeps them off the radar of federal agents seeking
bigger hauls, and local prosecutors are wary of pursuing cases
against growers claiming the pot is for medical use, said longtime
narcotics agent Brent Wood.
"We can't touch 'em, and it's everywhere," said Wood, who commands
the multi-agency Central Valley Marijuana Investigation Team.
Investigators say growers often lease plots from landowners or
farmers. In some cases, the growers are small farmers themselves who
grow pot to supplement their incomes or simply raise other crops as a
cover from onlookers' eyes.
During a helicopter flight over Fresno County this past week, pot
plantations were easy to spot. Ko pointed out farms where marijuana
plants covered dozens of acres. Most of the massive grows were fenced
and surrounded by vegetables on trellises. Some were concealed within
abandoned orchards. On several grows, workers harvested plants and
dried marijuana on tarps.
Over the city of Fresno, Ko pointed to dozens of pot plots in the
backyards of homes.
On the ground, Ko drove down a dirt road to a farm on the outskirts
of Sanger, near Fresno. Above tall vines of yellowing melons,
marijuana plants the size of fruit trees were just barely visible.
The plot of about 60 plants was surrounded by a fence decked with
lights and motion sensors.
Three growers approached Ko and presented makeshift medical marijuana
One grower, Mike Kipraseut, led Ko past a pit bull and a lookout
platform in a tree. Several pot plants were on the ground, chopped at
the stems. The family, who said they were refugees from Laos, decided
to get rid of the plants, Kipraseut said, because they had seen the
helicopter circling earlier that week. In any case, he said the
plants would not mature in time to harvest them before the rains.
Kipraseut said this was the first year he had grown pot and that he
sells vegetables for a living. He said he smoked it for headaches
following brain surgery. His uncle, who didn't give his name, said he
suffered from back pain.
"I'm not going to do it next year," said Kipraseut, whose family
leases 20 acres of farmland at $500 per acre. "It's too much of a risk."
Ko asked if the family wanted help in getting rid of the plants, and
they agreed. Later that day, federal agents dragged the plants to a
trailer that would haul them away. The family would not be arrested
because they had cooperated with authorities, Ko said, adding that
similar marijuana plots were growing on four nearby farms.
Growers often post multiple pot recommendations or ID cards near
their gardens, investigators say. Under California's landmark 1996
ballot measure, patients with a doctor's recommendation or their
caregivers can grow pot for medical use. The state Supreme Court
found last year that the measure trumped a later state law limiting
how much pot a patient can grow. Efforts by counties to restrict the
number of plants per patient were left in limbo.
"Some fields have hundreds of recommendations from doctors," Ko said.
"In order to get them, we have to catch them selling out of state or
Investigators believe much of what's grown in farms and backyards as
medical marijuana gets shipped as far as Texas, Illinois and Boston.
While a glut of high-grade marijuana has brought wholesale prices in
California as low as $900 per pound, agents say the same pot on East
Coast streets can bring up to $3,000 per pound.
Hundreds of pot plants can be grown per acre, each potentially
yielding a pound or more of pot.
"I don't know of any crop that brings that kind of money per acre,"
said Ryan Jacobson, director of the Fresno County Farm Bureau.
Earlier this month, federal prosecutors announced a crackdown on
hundreds of California pot dispensaries who were warned to stop
selling pot or face prosecutions and asset seizures.
But several federal cases highlight the scale some farmland pot farms
Agents raided a 54-acre farm near Sanger in November 2010 and pulled
up nearly 4,400 plants and seized more than 1,100 pounds of processed
In July, agents returned and found about 25,000 plants growing in a
sophisticated operation staffed by 50 workers, protected by barbed
wire and a lookout tower. Those plants were uprooted, but officials
said the site was replanted again — this week agents pulled out more
than 200 plants.
As with several other landowners accused of leasing to pot growers,
federal prosecutors are seeking to seize the land.
Growers appear to find the profits worth the risk. The region has
abundant sunlight and irrigation, and fertilizer is as close as the
nearest hardware store. Investigators claim the marijuana plants
grown on farmland yield five pounds of pot compared to one pound per
plant raised in the forest, where growers sacrifice sunlight to keep
plants hidden from law enforcement flyovers.
Said Wood: "These backyard grows have been producing these monster
marijuana plants like I've never seen in my life."
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