A camouflaged soldier in full battle fatigues walks through a dry, wooded hillside. Oak litter crunches under his feet. He is carrying an orange garbage bag labeled “Don’t Trash California.”
The soldier meticulously picks up bits and pieces of garbage interwoven into hacked manzanita branches strewn on the ground. Hundreds of society’s ubiquitous, multicolored grocery bags are twisted and flattened alongside disposable cups, empty processed meat packages, a blister pack from an ATT Go Phone, cans of soda, Tecate and Spam, spent ammo casings, tortilla bags and bottles of something called “Alcohol de cana ‘potable’ Victoria.” The garbage has an undeniably ethnic cast.
Just beyond the soldier are a dozen more bags, full to bursting, tied and ready for removal.
Soon, the sound of a Pavehawk helicopter disturbs the silence of the forest. In a tiny clearing near the illegal grow site, chopper blades frantically whip nearby trees as two soldiers secure a neatly tied, dumpster-sized packet to a cable dangling from the helicopter. The garbage packet swings and sways erratically as the Pavehawk gains altitude. 43,800 pounds to date. How much more to go is anybody’s guess.
Operation Full Court Press has been in full swing for two weeks. Hundreds of personnel from 27 local, state and federal agencies have been working in six northern California counties on the most high profile, multi-agency marijuana eradication effort in the Emerald Hexagon’s history. The six counties bordering the Mendocino National Forest — Colusa, Glenn, Lake, Mendocino, Tehama and Trinity — have partnered with the DEA, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the US Forest Service, BLM, the Department of Homeland Security’s ICE (Immigration Control and Enforcement) Division, CHP, the Civil Air Patrol, the US District Attorney’s Office and other agencies to identify marijuana grows in the region’s national forests, eradicate the farms, arrest and convict suspects (and, they hope, the higher-ups) and reclaim the forest ecosystem.
On July 29, a press conference was held in Ukiah. Representatives of the lead agencies involved were on hand to provide a synopsis of events and answer questions.
The meeting was held at the Redwood Empire Fairgrounds in Ukiah. Press credentials were scrupulously checked by CHP before anyone was allowed into the parking area. The Full Court Press VIP’s were delivered to the fairgrounds by helicopter following a tour of some of the raid sites.
Supervisors Carre Brown and John McCowen and District Attorney David Eyster were in attendance along with a smattering of local media representatives. Out-of-area journalists and reporters listened in and asked questions via conference call.
Melinda Haag, the US District Attorney for the Northern District and the first woman to hold the position since 1920 acted as Mistress of Ceremonies. Haag, who replaced Bush appointee Joe Russoniello, graduated from UC Berkeley’s Boalt Law School and was unanimously confirmed by the Senate. She is known for successfully prosecuting two guards at Pelican Bay State Prison who conspired to set up assaults on inmates.
Behind Haag, 14 men and women representing many of the participating agencies were lined up single file, standing alongside one another for the entirety of the conference. One wonders the omission of chairs on the riser was a simple oversight or if the decision for the group to remain standing was a strategic one. The result was that the group — most of whom did not speak at all during the conference — appeared slightly uncomfortable and mostly tired, shifting from one foot to the other for the approximately one hour of statements, questions and answers.
Haag began reading from a prepared speech in which she starkly contrasted the pristine condition of the region’s national forests with the degradation and disregard for the environment shown by drug traffickers engaging in illegal marijuana growing on public lands. “These are covert, large-scale marijuana operations polluting the land, using undocumented workers and possibly engaging in human trafficking,” she noted.
She commented on the well-known dangers faced by the public when they camp, fish or hike too close to a hidden grow site.
“Most local people know not to hike in the national forests in the summer months,” she continued. “I’ve warned people to be careful. This intolerable situation has to be stopped,” Haag said.
Haag was clearly and rightfully appalled at the disastrous environmental damage uncovered during the past two weeks of raids upon 56 grow sites throughout the six counties.
Video and photos provided to the attendees display discarded drip line timers scattered amongst rattraps and boxes of ground squirrel bait. White pebbles of some kind of spilled fertilizer litter the ground. Makeshift marijuana processing racks — hewn branches crudely strung together with coated wire — resemble a structure from the Blair Witch Project movie.
Perhaps the most shocking images were those of huge dams made of gigantic sheets of plastic — storage and containment sites for stolen water and the repository for a cocktail of chemicals and fertilizers used to feed plants fed by miles of drip line. Since the operation’s inception, teams have discovered 13 similar dam structures.
“For those of you who believe that marijuana growing is a peaceful activity, this notion is wrong. These people have complete disregard for the ecosystem,” says Haag, in a steely, no-nonsense tone.
Haag may watch Colbert and the Daily Show by night, but by day she has no intention of giving a blanket pass to the cannabis community. In February, she put pot-friendly Oakland and Alameda County on notice when she announced the Justice Department was “considering civil and criminal remedies” against those attempting to start up “industrial marijuana-growing warehouses.” This was followed by a remark by Alameda County’s district attorney, who reminded public officials they were not immune from prosecution.
Along with the 22 tons of trash, Haag states operations crews have removed 120 propane tanks, two tons of fertilizer, 57 pounds of pesticides and 22 miles of irrigation line.
Congressman Mike Thompson joined the conference by phone from Washington where he and his colleagues were scaling the walls toward the debt ceiling. “It took a long time to get these partners together,” said Thompson, roundly praising Sheriff Tom Allman for conceptualizing and spearheading Operation FCP. “We had a 2008 meeting in Ukiah. After that, Tom took the ball and ran with it,” noted the Senator.
Thompson said that the scourge on national forests was occurring across the country and not just in northern California. “Here we’ve put in so much effort to bring back the salmon, and we have illegal growers putting pesticide in the tributaries. It’s putting us two steps back,” said Thompson, concluding by saying he was extremely impressed with the results of the operation and that the project was long overdue.
“I’ve been a Federal Prosecutor for 25 years, but I’d never been to a grow site,” remarked Richard Bender, attorney with the US Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of California. “It was an eye-opening experience,” he noted, praising the eradication crews. “They’re going into the middle of an area dense with vegetation. Fifteen feet from where you are, you cannot see. You’re going into a situation where these people don’t want to be caught. These people are armed. They can be around the corner and you’d never know it. These men and women do it day in, day out in the national forests. They are wearing heavy clothing, hauling machetes and ammo. This is unglamorous and sometimes terrifying work,” Bender states.
Bender states his office receives one new large grow case per day.
Sheriff Tom Allman’s well-crafted and strategic opening statement exemplifies the singular situation he finds himself in — oath-bound to uphold multiple sets of laws that exist in complete contradiction to one another.
Take the Federal laws. In the past six months, the Obama Administration has tightened their approach to marijuana. In July, the DEA rejected a petition filed to reclassify marijuana from its current Schedule I status. Cannabis sits on the Schedule I shelf alongside heroin, Ecstasy and LSD.
The DEA’s rejection of the petition maintains the agency’s four-decades-old view that marijuana “has a high potential for abuse, has no accepted medical use in the United States, and lacks an acceptable level of safety for use even under medical supervision.”
Curiously, the synthetic cannabis drug Marinol, made from the plant which is said to have no therapeutic value is classified as a Schedule III drug, two rungs down from the cannabis plant itself, sits on the pharmacopeia shelf next to anabolic steroids and Vicodins.
Ron Brooks vigorously supports the DEA’s decision. Brooks directs the Northern California Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) and its offshoot, the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center (NCRIC). Both organizations arose out of President Obama’s Office of National Drug Control Policy.
The primary function of the HIDTA is to reduce drug trafficking by coordinating interagency intelligence exchange, training and support of federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement. A typical HIDTA-sponsored class entitled Surveillance Detection Course for Municipal Security Officials and State Law Enforcement will be held in Ukiah later this month.
Each HIDTA is governed by a 16-member board- comprised of a mixture of federal, state and local officials. Members of the Northern California HIDTA include US Attorney Melinda Haag, Anthony Williams, Special Agent in Charge, DEA, Adam Behnen, Inspector in Charge for the US Postal Inspection Service, Special Agents of the FBI, ATF and the IRS and Sheriffs from several northern California counties.
Brooks opens by stating that 65% of adolescents in drug treatment have marijuana-related issues, that cannabis-related vehicle-related fatalities have skyrocketed and that there have been 160,000 admissions to emergency rooms for marijuana-related issues — statistics that cannabis activists will undoubtedly challenge.
Discussing FCP, Brooks focuses on thanking volunteers from the High Sierra Volunteer Trail Crew who are providing cleanup efforts for some of the sites. “As a 36-year working narcotics officer, I can’t emphasize how dangerous this is,” says Brooks. He indicated that Mendocino County was recently added as the eleventh county in the NorCal HIDTA. “This will bring in additional funds and technical support to help Mendocino County Law Enforcement,” says Brooks.
The unyielding Federal stance on marijuana differs markedly from that of state and local government.
At the press conference sits Supervisor John McCowen, who has recently been appointed to help draft the county’s first dispensary ordinance. He has been credited for his efforts with the county’s 99-plant growers exemption program, which is bringing in dollars and a degree of mutual cooperation between participating growers and county law enforcement.
On the home page of the Mendocino County Sheriff’s website, the application for the 9.31 exemption and an set of questions and answers for gardens with 25 plants and fewer are just one click away. Perhaps it is less confusing for everyone that Federal guidelines are not posted.
“No matter where you stand on medical marijuana, the one commonality is: Thou Shalt Not Grow on Common Lands,” says Sheriff Tom Allman in his opening remarks to the attendees.
At first glance, there is nothing remarkable about this statement. But upon further examination, his inclusion of the word, “medical” in his remarks is a subtle stroke of genius. With that one word, he bridged the chasm between local and federal agencies attempting to simultaneously eradicate and regulate the crop that, depending upon who you ask is either bereft of or bursting with “medical value.”
Operatives had been gathering intelligence on suspected sites since December, according to Allman. Thus far, over 100 individuals have been arrested. Twenty-five individuals have been charged with various undisclosed crimes and are being held in several jurisdictions. Those facing federal charges have been removed from local jails. 469,000 plants have been seized along with close to a ton of processed marijuana, 18 grams of meth, 22 Xanax tablets, 32 weapons and 11 vehicles.
BLM’s Ukiah office reports that from fiscal years 2007 through 2010, “the lands managed by the Ukiah Field Office have had more plants eradicated and more acres impacted from illegal marijuana plantations than any other BLM field office in the country.” Nationally, 810,000 plants were removed from BLM public lands in 2010. Of those, 600,000 were seized on BLM lands in the Cow Mountain, Cache Creek, Indian Valley and Geysers areas of California.
“The word ‘Court’ is in the middle of the title for an important reason,” says the Sheriff. “If we don’t get these people to court and we don’t make an example of what will happen to people who use our public lands recklessly, we’re not going to make a difference,” he explains.
The vast majority of FCP’s raids were conducted in extremely remote areas of Tehama and Glenn Counties — rugged country fit for the likes of mountain climber Bear Grylls.
In Mendocino County, about 14 raids have been conducted. Three raids yielded a maximum plant count of up to 10,000 plants each. The other sites yielded less than 3,445 plants each. Two sites were raided in the area south of Fish Rock Road west of Yorkville. One site was located west of Branscomb, and another south of Dos Rios. Three sites were eradicated in the Chicken Ridge area outside of Colvelo, and one site on Bureau of Indian Affairs land was raided. Another three sites on what is designated “local government land” were raided south of Hearst Road near Willits. All of the sites appeared to be located miles from main roads. Reclamation efforts have begun at most of the locations.
It was also curious that exactly zero, zip, nada informacion was available at the press conference regarding how much Operation FCP is going to cost taxpayers. It was not so surprising that officials were not able to produce to-date figures during a work in progress, but it was somewhat surprising that an overall budget or even a breakdown of the funding sources was not available.
“I’m not sure of the tally to taxpayers,” said Haag, turning to her 14 companions, who by now are really tired of standing and now have to face a question that is uncomfortable in the best of economic climates. “Did we have an overall budget? I’m sure individual agencies each had their own budget,” said Haag, appearing briefly disarmed. One thing is clear. In this age of financial rack and ruin, it seems a certainty that citizens and supervisors in all six counties will be demanding a full accounting of the cost of the operation.
One of the criteria for local success of the operation will be if there are no FCP-related arrests of qualified holders of zip-ties and 99-plant exemption permits. If that condition is met, if the County’s exemption program enlists more farmers and provides the department with increased revenue, and if Operation FCP produces a measurable and favorable impact on the health of the county’s public lands, Sheriff Allman may have won this season’s Trifecta.
Allman indicates FCP has legs. “It’s certainly not over,” he states. This is not a one-time event.” He promises if the same situation occurs next year, “we’ll be back with a new, improved, bigger, better FCP.” There is evidence some plantations have been used for multiple seasons — another reason the program goals are not just to destroy the plants, but also the supporting infrastructure.
One last photo on display shows Army personnel coiling and taping up yards and yards of drip line, moving the bundles into an awaiting trailer. The soldier, fully outfitted in fatigues and combat gear is wearing what resembles a middle-eastern scarf, wrapped several times around his neck. Perhaps this was an item he brought home from a tour in Afghanistan.
Not so far as the crow flies from this operation, more marijuana plants are growing. An older couple in their mid-60s is tending their garden. Squash and asparagus have volunteered on the straw-laden pathways that meander between the 25 vigorous cannabis plants. “We don’t just plant organically. We farm biodynamically,” they note. Evening primroses are shut tight in the afternoon sun, and spears of gladiolus line the path following the potting shed which has sat in the garden for decades.
Four medical marijuana recommendations are prominently displayed on their gate, and the plants are correctly marked with brightly colored zip ties. In the kitchen, the family discusses how to create a new cannabis formula for a friend undergoing chemotherapy. “He isn’t eating any sugar, so we can’t use alcohol for the tincture,” says the mom. Pop suggests they look into making or procuring Simpson Oil, long credited for curing, not curtailing, inoperable cancers, diabetes and glaucoma.
Overhead, a helicopter circles the region around the family farm, the third time that day. “Sometimes I wave,” says the mom. “Mostly, I just keep doing what I’m doing.”