Sgt. Barry Powell didn’t come out and say that Shasta County’s new marijuana-growing ordinance will make foresters’ lives more dangerous.
But that’s the clear implication from the outline of trends the head of the county’s Marijuana Eradication Team gave Thursday to the Sierra-Cascade Logging Conference.
After peaking in 2009, seizures of illegal marijuana in Shasta County’s backcountry have dropped substantially, Powell said.
A great victory against the forces of criminality? Nope. Powell said that the same Mexican cartels that have planted huge illegal farms on remote north state forests have instead switched to planting them openly, under the protections of Proposition 215’s allowance for medicinal marijuana.
These aren’t your neighbors growing a few plants for personal use. Rather, a dozen “patients” might each use their doctor’s recommendation to grow as many as 99 plants apiece, Powell explained, creating vast and lucrative farms that local law enforcement has no real authority to bother. And much of that marijuana is shipped, illegally, out of California at a healthy markup. Powell said he’s currently working with authorities in five different states where seized marijuana was traced back to Shasta County.
But, Powell said, the growers will probably be heading back to the woods. Why? Shasta County’s new marijuana-growing ordinance, which strictly limits the size of pot gardens and requires that either patients or their caregivers actually live on the property where marijuana is grown.
The county’s ordinance is a reasonable attempt to keep residential areas from being overwhelmed by pot gardens. At the same time, not even the officer in charge of the county’s marijuana-eradication efforts suggests it will actually stop people from growing. Instead, he said it will just move them elsewhere, back into hiding.
In doing so, it will probably make them more dangerous. At the same Thursday forum on marijuana growing and forestry, Sierra Pacific Industries patrolman Roger Newton said that Proposition 215 growers he encounters are often armed, usually have fierce pit bulls, and all too frequently trespass on neighboring private forestland. Ultimately, though, they’re not afraid of law enforcement or legitimate forest users – but of “patch pirates” out to steal their valuable crop, he said. The best way for foresters to keep safe, he argued, is to be open and visible so paranoid growers don’t think someone’s sneaking up on them.
Nobody at the logging conference suggested as much, but it’s hard not to think the same principle applies to marijuana growing itself.
The illegal marijuana growers who abuse the national forests or private timberlands and ranches are criminals who belong in prison. But they’re also capitalists who meet a demand that shows no signs of disappearing, and years of eradication efforts did little to roll back the tide of backcountry growing. What did begin to curb illegal plantations in recent years is, quite simply, that it’s been easier to grow the stuff legally.
Decriminalizing marijuana has all kinds of social implications that might make it a bad path. But if the goal is to preserve and protect our forests from criminals’ abuse, and to ensure the safety of legitimate foresters, hunters and hikers, nothing would accomplish that faster than letting pot growers raise their crop on farms like any other commodity. When’s the last time anyone ran into a backwoods moonshine still?
Last week’s forum was in part sponsored by the Jere Melo Foundation, which was set up after the murder last year of the former Fort Bragg mayor by a schizophrenic Mendocino County resident who was growing opium poppies on private forestland Melo was inspecting. Its aim: “to put a stop to the violence and environmental damage caused by illegal marijuana grows.”
Every law-abiding resident of Northern California shares that goal, but does anyone realistically think yet another season of helicopter overflights will achieve it?