The vexing problem of trespass marijuana grows was probed at a forum convened by North Coast Congressman Jared Huffman, who emphasized the need for collaboration between police and wildlife agencies and local, state and federal governments.
Held on July 2 at the conference room of the county jail building, the forum gave Huffman a chance to hear from those who are dealing with the environmental effects of trespass grows on public, tribal and private timberlands.
Huffman co-sponsored the Protecting Lands Against Narcotics Trafficking (PLANT) Act with Congressman Mike Thompson but it hasn’t gotten beyond the committee level since it was introduced a year ago and stands no chance of being enacted.
But Huffman said the U.S. Sentencing Commission is pursuing the enhanced penalties for trespass-related drug offenses advanced by the bill. He told an audience of sheriffs from Humboldt, Del Norte and Trinity counties, tribal officials, state Department of Fish and Wildlife staff, U.S. Forest Service managers and private timberland managers that new sentencing guidelines will be useful but not a panacea.
“It’s not the silver bullet, obviously,” he said, adding that he convened the gathering “so I can hear from you to see if there’s anything more I can do to support your work, to see if you have any questions and to make sure we’re all working in the same direction.”
Humboldt County Sheriff Mike Downey said that absent of marijuana legalization and regulation, federal assistance and funding is necessary to step up action against environmentally destructive trespass grows.
“We’re in a crisis situation where we need enhanced and fuller funding for enforcement of the laws we have on the books,” he said. “Right now, we’re not even band-aiding it, we’re basically throwing whatever we can at the issue, hoping that it goes away – it’s not going to go away.”
The Sheriff’s Office has identified at least 4,000 grows in the county and last year, only 92 were raided and shut down, Downey continued.
He said the county’s recent High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) designation has helped with $90,000 of start-up funding. But Sheriff’s Office Lieutenant George Cavinta of the county’s Drug Task Force said the scale of the problem exceeds the county’s ability to deal with it, even with the designation in place.
“We are truly just community response,” he continued. “We don’t have the resources to be proactive and pick an area and work it.”
He added that federal assistance is only available for high-asset grows and cases take a long time to process. “We understand those resources are depleted also,” Cavinta said. “Once you hand over a case to them, they’re on that case for the next three years.”
After Downey thanked Huffman for working to gain Humboldt’s HIDTA designation – the only one approved in California -- Huffman acknowledged that “none of these things are silver bullets.”
Also in the audience were wildlife biologists who are studying environmental impacts and Huffman was told that grant and private foundation funding only covers clean-up of a fraction of grow sites.
Huffman said more legislators have to join the effort to offset the impacts and approve funding for clean-ups and restoration projects. He told the audience, “Let’s speak with one voice.”
The impact of marijuana-related water diversion in a drought cycle was also strongly emphasized. Six Rivers National Forest Supervisor Mike Minton said Forest Service roads are being worn out by “a big increase in commercial traffic” and “unpermitted heavy use.”
When Huffman asked about the nature of the commercial traffic, Minton said it’s “a huge increase in volume of water trucks” supplying grow sites.
“That’s just flagrant,” Huffman said.
Minton said water theft is also an issue, one that’s “having an impact on our infrastructure.” He said Forest Service facilities, campgrounds and offices have seen “water theft associated with grows” and it’s challenging their operation.
Yurok and Hoopa Valley tribal representatives also said they’re losing water to grow-related diversions.
Huffman said the concept of legalizing marijuana is gaining fast traction on a national level and he predicted legalization will be approved in California within two years. The “inevitable solution” will be to get marijuana decriminalized federally and “tax and regulate the heck out of it,” he continued.
In the interim, Huffman told the audience members that they need to continue to collaborate. He said he’ll work with them on calling attention to the situation and gaining federal funding to deal with it.