Wall Street Journal: Pot 'Plantations' on the Rise: Border Crackdown Makes Farming in U.S. Forests Attractive; Cartel Links Suspected
By STEPHANIE SIMON
Marijuana growers, many believed to be affiliated with Mexican drug cartels, are aggressively expanding their illegal farming operations in the U.S., clearing land to plant pot in dozens of national forests from coast to coast.
Illicit cannabis farms on public land first sprang up in California more than a decade ago and remain a serious problem in that state. But in the past two years, the U.S. Forest Service has documented a rapid expansion of the practice.
Authorities have discovered pot farms in 61 national forests across 16 states this year, up from 49 forests in 10 states last year. New territories include public land in Colorado, Wisconsin, Michigan, Alabama and Virginia.
More than 51,000 marijuana plants were seized in Colorado's Pike National Forest in July.
"They're moving across the country," said David Ferrell, director of law enforcement for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which includes the Forest Service.
With the expansion comes an increased risk to campers and hikers -- a particular concern this Labor Day weekend, as families converge on public land just as many cannabis crops are ready for harvest.
The propane tanks, stoves and trash left behind by pot farmers pose fire risks; such a camp is believed to have sparked a fire last month that burned 88,000 acres in California's Los Padres National Forest. And many pot patches are watched over by armed guards or booby-trapped. Some are remote, but others are near popular tourist sites, such as a pot farm discovered late last month in California's Sequoia National Park, a half-mile from a cave famed for its crystal formations.
Operators of RV parks and campgrounds near public land have taken to warning vacationers to be cautious in the woods. Stockpiled food or trash of any type might be an indication of a prolonged campout linked to a pot farm, officials said. They advise hikers who spot such signs to retreat and call authorities.
The pot farms are not fly-by-night operations. Growers cut down trees and terrace canyons to create plantations big enough for tens of thousands of plants. They apply pesticides and herbicides -- some not approved for U.S. use. They dam or divert streams and hook together miles of PVC piping to build irrigation systems, some rigged to sophisticated timers.
Each camp is typically tended around the clock by guards who may be equipped with assault rifles, night-vision goggles, walkie-talkies and radios to monitor law-enforcement chatter.
"It seems like every year, they step it up a notch," said Michelle Gregory, a special agent with the California Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement.
So far this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, federal agents have raided 487 pot farms on forest-service land, where they destroyed 2.6 million marijuana plants, seized 138 firearms and made 369 arrests on felony drug charges.
Nearly half the farms were tended by foreign nationals, and investigators say they believe some of the big operations are controlled by Mexican drug-trafficking rings. The investigation into the cartels' role is still at an early stage. But by tracing contacts, money trails and distribution networks, "we're starting to have success at linking these [pot farms] back to groups that have traditionally been enemies of ours in Mexico," said Jeff Sweetin, special agent in charge of the Rocky Mountain region for the Drug Enforcement Administration.
The pot magnates also appear to be heavily involved in trafficking other drugs, such as methamphetamines and cocaine, Mr. Sweetin said.
Growing marijuana in the U.S. is increasingly attractive to foreign cartels because fencing and stepped-up patrols along the Mexican border have made it tougher to smuggle drugs into this country, said Howard Campbell, an anthropologist who studies the cartels at the University of Texas at El Paso.
The cartels have drug-distribution networks in more than 200 U.S. cities, so it is relatively simple for them to recruit workers to scout forests and tend pot crops across a broad swath of the country, Mr. Campbell said.
Pot growers may also find this a good time to expand because cash-strapped states and counties have cut patrols. California's marijuana task force, which includes local, state and federal agents, has reduced aerial surveillance and eliminated overnight stakeouts and overtime missions, according to Ms. Gregory.
In the Rocky Mountain region, Mr. Sweetin said some law-enforcement agencies can no longer devote resources to tracking suspects and building criminal cases; the most they can do is cut down marijuana plants when they find them -- and hope the growers don't return next season.