SACRAMENTO -- Mexican drug cartels, attracted by the state's rich soil and
remote forests, grew nearly three-quarters of the pot seized in California
this fall, state officials announced Tuesday.

That marks a dangerous shift toward large and sophisticated growing
operations, said Sonya Barna, commander of the Justice Department's Campaign
Against Marijuana Production, known as CAMP.

"It used to be an industry controlled by hippies with small gardens," Barna
said. "Now, it's not uncommon to see cartels planting anywhere from 2,000 to
10,000 plants in a garden."

This year, local, state and federal drug agents confiscated a record 354,000
of marijuana plants worth about $1.4 billion, Attorney General Bill Lockyer
said Tuesday.

State officials say higher prices -- as much as $4,000 a pound -- makes
marijuana cultivation a fast-growing industry.

Since the CAMP program started nearly 20 years ago, more than 3 million pot
plants have been seized -- nearly half of which were confiscated in just the
last four years.

About 74 percent of marijuana farms raided this year had apparent ties to
Mexican drug cartels, which sometimes find it is easier to grow pot in the
states rather than risk smuggling it across the border.

The increase in the amount of pot gardens in California comes as states
across the country push for less severe penalties for growing and carrying
marijuana. Seven states have legalized marijuana for medical purposes. And
Nevada voters will consider a ballot initiative next week to legalize small
amounts of marijuana.

Of the 181 gardens raided, the average garden had 2,000 plants, and eight
had 10,000 or more plants.

Most frequently, armed immigrants tend to guard farms hidden in remote areas
of state and national forests and other public land, said Ross Butler,
assistant special agent at the Bureau of Land Management.

More than half of all the pot seized was grown on public land, where armed
growers can pose a danger to unsuspecting hikers and hunters, he said.

In 2000, a father and son hunting on their private land in El Dorado County
were shot by growers tending their garden. This year, law enforcement
officials shot and killed two armed growers.

Most of the pot was grown in the so-called Emerald Triangle -- Humboldt,
Mendocino and Trinity counties -- which have long been a favorite among pot
producers. About 30 percent was seized in the Central Valley, and another 30
percent came from the Bay area and Central Coast.

Pubdate: Thu, 31 Oct 2002
Source: North County Times (CA)
Copyright: 2002 North County Times