Production of marijauna, speed skyrockets in national forests

Discussion in 'Marijuana News' started by Superjoint, May 30, 2001.

  1. WASHINGTON - Nestled among the Douglas firs, towering redwoods and lush grasslands of the national forests, some less bucolic products have been cropping up recently - pot and speed, with armed guards watching over them.

    Naturally sheltered from scrutiny because of their sheer remoteness, the 192 million acres of national forests long have been a haven for marijuana growers. But authorities say the past few years have seen pot and methamphetamine production climb steadily on public lands from California to Kentucky, and they worry that increasingly heavily fortified encampments of drug traffickers could pose a serious threat to the people who visit and work in the forest system.

    "We have booby traps. We have shootouts," said William Wasley, the U.S. Forest Service's director of law enforcement and investigations. "They're not going to surrender without a fight."

    As federal, state and local law-enforcement agencies have stepped up anti-drug efforts near cities and suburban areas, the forests have developed a greater lure, Wasley said. The Forest Service believes organized, international drug cartels based in Mexico are moving onto national forests in California and across the West, accounting for much of the recent increase in drug production.

    The almost 3 million acres of Forest Service land in North Carolina, including the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests in WNC, are not immune to this trend. In 2000, federal rangers seized 8,400 marijuana plants on forest lands statewide. Already, more than half of the marijuana grown in this country is grown on federal lands, both in the forests and on land managed by the Interior Department such as national parks or monuments, according to the 2001 annual report from the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

    But in WNC, the tough terrain deters some growers.

    "We used to see plantations of several hundred marijuana plants," said Smokies Ranger Bob Miller. "But in the last 8 to 10 years, we've been doing marijuana eradication flights. We find a few plants here and there. If we collect 100 in a year, it's a lot."

    The steep mountains in the park, Miller explained, do not provide suitable terrain for marijuana cultivation. The park is also not as easily accessible as Forest Service land, which is cut with logging roads.

    On the Blue Ridge Parkway, rangers say they see more trafficking and recreational drug use than cultivation.

    "What we tend to see on the parkway is two groups," said Supervisory Park Range John Garrison. "The overwhelming group is the recreational users. The second is those folks who get on the parkway by accident or by choice and we catch them because of some other violation."

    Garrison said the parkway's limited remote lands do not provide enough seclusion for drug cultivation.

    Still, cultivating the illegal crop remains big business.

    Last year, the Forest Service seized 733,427 marijuana plants nationwide, which each can yield 1 to 2.2 pounds of processed pot, said Kim Thorsen, the agency's deputy law enforcement director. At a retail price of roughly $4,500 per pound, depending on the plant's potency and market conditions where it's sold, last year's take was worth about $7 billion - and that's only what the Forest Service managed to find.

    Between 1996 and 1998, the Forest Service says it confiscated more dope than the Border Patrol or the Customs Service did on the U.S.-Mexico border.

    Speed production soared last year, too. The Forest Service found 214 labs and 274 dump sites where meth cookers leave toxic byproducts, up from a total of 107 labs and dump sites in 1999. Officials say meth labs can ruin streams or increase fire risks besides the danger their guards pose.

    "It's like some rule in thermodynamics – you're going to follow the easiest pattern of flow," Wasley said. "There's nobody there to really impede you."

    Only 450 law enforcement agents, aided by local sheriffs in places, patrol the 192 million-acre national forest system, and the agency spends $5 million to $7 million each year on anti-drug efforts.

    For drug makers, not only do the remote forests promise little chance of detection, they also provide extra protection. Producing drugs on public land means no risk of having personal property confiscated if authorities find a meth lab or a marijuana farm, officials said. Unless law enforcement officers stake out a site, the worst that can happen for a producer on public land is the loss of the drugs they're making.

    Small-time pot farmers account for some of the drug production, especially in Kentucky's Daniel Boone National Forest, which led the country in the number of marijuana plants seized last year, authorities said. But international cartels may only now be realizing how wide open the sparse police presence can leave the forests.

    In the Sequoia National Forest near Visalia, Calif., agents found a 4-square-mile pot farm last year that they say was operated by an organized group from Mexico. Officers have come across camps with exercise facilities, treehouses, barbed-wire fences and extensive arms caches, Thorsen said.

    In October, an 8-year-old boy and his father were shot by a man guarding a marijuana farm on their property in a forest in El Dorado County, Calif., in the Sierra Nevada. One of the alleged shooters was arrested later carrying an AK-47, a handgun and 6 pounds of marijuana.

    Growers can live in the forests near their plots for months. The plants are put in the ground from late May to early June and harvested in late August or September.

    The Forest Service conducts some aerial surveillance, looking for marijuana farms, and sometimes agents come across plots in their regular patrols. But there's not much they can do beyond reacting when they find farms because the agency doesn't have the manpower to patrol aggressively and proactively, authorities said.

    Though illegal drugs have been produced on federal land for years, the issue seems to get scant attention in Washington, and Wasley said the Forest Service struggles to raise awareness to help its efforts.

    Congressional panels that oversee the national forests tend to get involved in the drug issue if local law enforcement groups complain that they aren't getting enough help from the federal patrols, said Doug Crandall, the staff director for the House Resources' Forests and Forest Health Subcommittee.

    Though the Office of Drug Control Policy includes going after domestic production in its anti-drug strategies, the major federal land-management agencies - the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the Park Service - will spend a combined $21.3 million on drug-related law enforcement next year. By contrast, $1.3 billion went to the Plan Colombia effort to reduce the supply of cocaine, heroin and marijuana from Colombia in 2000 and 2001.

    "So much funding goes to efforts internationally, to keeping it from coming into the country, but we would contest that the U.S. is a source country for marijuana," said the Forest Service's Thorsen. "Let's put some of the resources in our own backyard."

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