Pot Farms in California: Too Dangerous to Intervene?

Tracie Cone, NBC News, August 4, 2013

With parts of Northern California’s scenic hillsides illegally gouged by bulldozers for marijuana grows, frustrated local officials asked the state for help to protect streams and rivers from harmful sediment and the chemicals used on the pot plants.

They hoped to charge growers under federal and state clean water regulations with tougher penalties than the infractions local officials could impose. But they were rebuffed.

It’s too dangerous, the state agency in charge of protecting the region’s water said in a letter to county supervisors.

“We simply cannot, in good conscience, put staff in harm’s way,” wrote Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board Executive Director Paula Creedon.

As in many rural counties in California, marijuana farms are becoming more and more plentiful. They proliferate in the high Sierra, where armed Mexican cartel operatives clear wilderness areas, divert creeks and poison wildlife. Other smaller gardens are planted by people operating as collectives by pooling dozens of permits under the state’s medical marijuana laws, though many of those are traffickers attempting to skirt the law. State law allows a person with a medical permit to grow roughly a dozen plants.

Butte County Supervisor Chairman Bill Connelly—frustrated that even photos of illegally scraped and terraced hillsides in sensitive watersheds didn’t convince the water quality board to act—accused the board of not applying the law equally.

“My concern is that legitimate business people get harassed (by the agency), but illegal people will not be harassed because they get a pass,” he said. “They go after the timber industry and farmers.”

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The issue of large-scale marijuana enforcement and the damage some pot farms cause is not new in a region known as the Emerald Triangle, for the marijuana that has been produced there for decades. Marijuana is the state’s biggest cash crop with an estimated $14 billion in legal and illegal sales annually.

California wildlife wardens and hikers in the state’s remote backcountry occasionally happen upon gunmen guarding multimillion-dollar pot farms. It’s one of the reasons the California Department of Fish & Wildlife recently issued its wardens more powerful weapons.

Those growers, when caught, are charged criminally in federal courts. But at the local level, counties are concerned with growers taking advantage of laws legalizing the growing of marijuana for medical uses. Even the legal farmers must comply with environmental laws.

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