Beth DeFalco, AP, Aug. 18
PHOENIX — Arizona’s national forests are quickly becoming prime real estate for pot farmers, with approximately 100,000 marijuana plants discovered this year alone, authorities said Thursday.
The discovery of a marijuana farm north of Strawberry on the southernmost part of Coconino National Forest marks the sixth farm found this year by members of the Gila County Narcotics Enforcement Task Force. In all, federal authorities estimated the street value of the drugs to be $150 million.
“We seem to be the marijuana growing capitol of Arizona,” said task force Commander Steve Craig.
Eleven people have been arrested this year in connection with the farms — many of them caught while tending to the plants. All were illegal immigrants from Mexico. Each faces sentences of 10 years to life in prison under federal sentencing guidelines. Authorities said pot gardens have been discovered in Arizona forests since the 1980s, but the frequency and crop size has dramatically increased in recent years.
“We have very sophisticated, dangerous individuals moving onto our state lands,” said Department of Public Safety Director Roger Vanderpool.
Paul Charlton, the U.S. Attorney for Arizona, said some of the suspected gardeners were armed with assault weapons. Charlton also said federal investigators were tying to find out if the suspects have connections to specific drug cartels in Mexico.