Outlaw Cannabis Operations Continue Growing on Public Lands

by Caroline Griffith

While the shelter-in-place order is keeping much of California safely at home, there is one group of people who are taking advantage of the empty roads and lack of prying eyes: black-market cannabis growers. The National Forests and other public lands of Northern California have long been home to environmentally disastrous illegal grow operations, and anecdotal reports out of Trinity County indicate an increase in activity this spring. Many of these grow sites get abandoned at the end of the season or left in need of remediation after raids by law enforcement. These sites often contain copious amounts of trash and remnants of incredibly toxic pesticides, herbicides and rodenticides. Another effect of these grows which may not be as readily visible as a pile of plastic, is the effect on wildlife and downstream communities when water is diverted for irrigation, or worse, contaminated with chemicals. Though this problem is largely hidden from the general public because of the secrecy inherent to a black market operation, the CROP (Cannabis Removal on Public Lands) Project is working to bring it out of the shadows.

Polyline (irrigation tubing) removed from a trespass grow in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest which was illegally diverting streams. Photo by Jackee Riccio

A joint venture between the California Wilderness Coalition (CalWild) and Community Governance Partnership, the CROP Project’s primary goals are to secure and increase state and federal resources for trespass grow reclamation; increase Forest Service law enforcement and overall presence in National Forests; and increase criminal penalties for those bringing toxicants on to public lands. By some estimates there are at least 1500 illicit grows in California, though nobody really knows the actual number, says Chris Morrill, Executive Director of CalWild. What he does know, is that it takes approximately $40,000 to reclaim each abandoned grow site. CROP also knows that only 60-70% of illicit grow sites are ever discovered, making funding and detection two of their big challenges, along with disposing of the toxic substances that are often found on illicit grow sites.

 According to the CROP Project, 90% of sites reclaimed in 2018 contained lethal, controlled or banned pesticides, including Sarin-based malathion, Brodifacoum/Bromadiolone, Carbofuran, Methamidophos, and Cholecalciferol. Carbofuran is the most toxic, EPA-banned pesticide that is regularly found on grow sites. In addition to being a danger to those working at or cleaning up the sites, these chemicals are devastating to wildlife. The danger isn’t just for the animal that initially ingests the chemicals. When scavengers and predators feast on animals killed by rodenticides or pesticides, they can then be killed. If those animals are in turn eaten, the toxins work their way up the food chain. Rodenticides are now found in 95% of mountain lions statewide, 85% of fishers are exposed to one or more toxicants, and California spotted owls (ESA listed) have a 70% exposure rate.

Jackee Riccio, CROP Project Regional Field Director, says that she has heard horrific stories of animal poisonings from colleagues. One told the story of a Black Bear sow and her cub found drinking from a contaminated water source. This colleague watched, helpless, as first the mother died and then her cub. Riccio has seen the horror herself, as well. She has seen endangered fishers fighting for their lives and ultimately losing. She has seen the piles of trash, environmental damage and clues as to the working conditions of those who are growing at the sites. She says that one site sticks in her mind because of the discovery of baby clothes and toys among the other discarded items. “There may have been children at these sites, with no safety precautions,” she says.

Before all of our attention got refocused on the Coronavirus, California Congressman Jared Huffman and Doug LaMalfa were working through the House Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Committee to secure funding for the CROP Project. Rep. Huffman’s recently passed Wilderness Bill has provisions to “restore public lands affected by illegal trespass marijuana grows by establishing a partnership of federal, state, and local entities to facilitate the recovery of land and waters damaged by illegal marijuana growing sites.” 

If funding is alloted through the Appropriations Committee, in addition to paying for remediation, a portion would be used for reconnaissance to find grow sites hidden deep in the forest. Another chunk would go to increasing the law enforcement presence on public lands in an effort to deter illegal activity in the first place. According to Morrill, right now law enforcement officers on public lands cover about 250,000 acres per officer. “This is difficult in the best of times,” he added. When there are fewer officers patrolling, such as now when we are in a public health crisis, this can lead to an uptick in illegal activity. “Trespass growers are opportunistic,” says Morrill. “They will grow where it’s easy to grow. There will be more opportunities with less enforcement.” More law enforcement officers can be a deterrent, as can more activity by people.

“An increase in outlaw grows is definitely a concern for law enforcement and conservation interests,” says Morrill. “In general there is a lack of enforcement and we are assuming there is going to be even less this year.”

Riccio says that one way citizens can help out is by contacting their lawmakers and asking them to prioritize this issue. More pressure on lawmakers can lead to more funding, which is what it takes to prevent and clean-up after outlaw cannabis grows. The devastation wrought by illegal growing happens largely out of sight, so it’s important to spread the word about what is happening on our public lands. “Share it on social media,” Riccio says. “Tell your friends.” And, it might go without saying, but buying cannabis from legal farmers is another way to hinder illegal grows. But, until cannabis is legalized nationwide, there will always be a black-market somewhere.