California expands largest US effort to eradicate illicit marijuana

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — With California’s four-year-old legal marijuana market in disarray, the state’s top attorney said Tuesday he will seek a new, broader approach to disrupting illegal pot farms that are undermining the legal economy and sowing widespread environmental damage.

The state will expand its nearly four-decade multi-agency seasonal eradication program — the largest in the U.S., which has harvested nearly a million marijuana plants this year — into a year-round effort aimed at investigating who is behind the illegal cultivation plugged. The new program will seek to prosecute underlying labor crimes, environmental crimes and the informal economy centered around illegal cultivation, Attorney General Rob Bonta said.

He called it “an important shift in mindset and mission” aimed at also supporting California’s faltering legal market by eliminating dangerous competition.

“The illegal marketplace outweighs the legal marketplace,” Bonta said. “It’s on its head and our goal is to completely eradicate the illicit market.”

Consistent with the new approach, the annual Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP) program, launched in 1983 under Republican Gov. George Deukmejian, will become a permanent Illicit Cannabis Eradication and Prevention Task Force (EPIC), Bonta said.

CAMP began “at a very different time, a different era, a different moment during the failed drug war and (at) a time when cannabis was still totally illegal,” Bonta said.

The seasonal eradication program, which lasts about 90 days each summer, continues in collaboration with other federal, state, and local agencies. These include the US Forest Service, US Bureau of Land Management, US Drug Enforcement Administration, National Park Service, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, California State Parks and the California National Guard, some of which are also participating in the new Task Force will participate, he said.

The task force will work with prosecutors from the Department of Justice, the Department’s Cannabis Control Division and an existing Underground Economy Tax Refund (TRUE) Task Force established by law in 2020, all with the aim of filing civil and criminal lawsuits against the stand behind illegal cultivation.

Federal and state prosecutors in California have long tried, with little success, to target the organized crime cartels behind the hidden farms, rather than the often migrant workers hired to tend and guard the often remote marijuana plantations that run scattered across public and private land.

Often living in primitive camps with no running water or sewers, the workers use caustic pesticides to kill animals that might otherwise eat the growing crops. But the pollution they leave behind has spread to downstream water supplies, and the pesticides can spread through the food chain.

The workers are victims of human trafficking, Bonta said, “they live alone for months in miserable conditions with no way out. These are not the people profiting from the illegal cannabis industry. They are abused, they are the victims. They are cogs in a much larger and better organized machine.”

For example, about 80% of the 44 illegal crops found on and around Bureau of Land Management properties this year were linked to drug trafficking organizations, said Karen Mouritsen, California state director for the Bureau of Land Management.

“It is clear that there are major challenges in terms of organized crime,” Bonta said. But he said he expects better results this time around because the new year-round efforts by multiple agencies “will make a big dent, a bit of a stir and a lot of noise about our shared priority of tackling the illicit market, including at the highest level.”

Bonta is running to keep his job in next month’s election ahead of Republican challenger and former federal attorney Nathan Hochman. He’s taking a well-known approach from recent Democrats across the country by focusing on dealers who sell illicit drugs, rather than the users who support the informal economy. President Joe Biden said last week he was pardoning thousands of Americans convicted under federal law of “simple possession” of marijuana, while San Francisco officials announced new efforts to curb overt drug trafficking.

The year-round approach “is long overdue,” Hochman said. “Only by hitting illicit drug growers where it hurts, by having their plants and proceeds confiscated, will California be able to help the legal cannabis industry survive and thrive.”

For those trying to exist in the legal market approved by California voters in 2016, the problem has been falling pot prices, restricted sales, high taxes despite the recent cannabis cultivation tax repeal, and the fact that buyers are better off Find bargains in the booming underground marketplace.

Aside from the nearly 1 million plants, which Bonta estimated at about $1 billion, this year’s eradication program seized more than 100 tons of processed marijuana, 184 weapons and about 33 tons of materials used to grow the plants, including dams, water pipes and containers of toxic chemicals, including pesticides and fertilizers. California expands largest US effort to eradicate illicit marijuana

Dais Johnston

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