It’s way too early on a Wednesday morning. I’m in Michelle Gregory’s minivan at a gas station in the Sierra foothills, near the town of Colfax. Gregory’s with the State Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement. I’m tagging along as they raid a big marijuana garden.
Undercover agents are luring the growers out with the promise of a hot shower. Little do they know that shower will come in jail.
That’s our cue that it’s safe to head in to the grow site. Agents have arrested two Mexican men - but two others bolt – and get away.
We bounce along several miles of dirt road past any sign of civilization and stop at a dusty clearing. Off to one side a narrow trail leads into a thick, forested area. We hike in:
The bust is one of several across the state as part of a ten-month investigation. Michelle Gregory says it’s a huge problem:
Gregory: “We’ve already surpassed last year’s numbers. At this time of the year, we were just over 1 million plants. We’re now double that – we’re well over 2 million plants already for the season and we still have two full months basically left.. Some people call it an epidemic. It’s everywhere.”
Giorgi: “This is actually their upper grow site here. This group probably has 7 separate plots. This is probably a real rough estimate - we’re probably looking at about 20-thosuand plants.”
Roy Giorgi is a Commander with the state’s Department of Justice. He helped plan the bust. He says those 20-thousand plants could net up to 40 million dollars – and they would have been sold in places like Colorado and Massachusetts.
“Once they hear it’s a California bud, there’s a huge market.”
California is a marijuana grower’s paradise: Lots of isolated state and national parks and forest service land, a mild climate – and now, says Giorgi, fewer eyes on the ground:
“They follow and they see that with the state budget we’re cutting back, like you said in state parks, or that the counties are taking a beating. We work hand in hand with county sheriff’s departments. They follow this and they know and I’ll tell you, I’ve been doing this for 20 years and it’s going to be worse next year.”
Agents uproot hundreds of the emerald green, pungent plants by hand. What’s left behind at the site is a little spooky. There are two toothbrushes and a tube of Colgate on one tree stump – and three bars of soap on another. There’s even a tub of laundry and underwear drying on a branch.
Then there are the bags of pesticide and the miles of hose they used to divert water from a nearby stream – causing major environmental damage. There’s also a bulletproof vest – and Giorgi says there are usually guns, too:
“Our last grow that we did three weeks ago there were hikers and bike riders 100 yards away.” And we get reports about every other week from a hiker, a hunter or a rancher saying he was confronted with someone with an AK 47.”
Giorgi says the important thing is to walk away – then call law enforcement. State parks officials acknowledge that marijuana gardens are a problem – but say even though they may have to close up to 100 parks, they won’t abandon them – they just won’t be able to patrol them as often as they do now.