Citing new scientific evidence of "catastrophic" impacts on California's forests and wildlife, law enforcement officials in Sacramento announced a new crackdown Tuesday on illegal marijuana growing sites statewide that they say are run by Mexican drug cartels.
Such drug growing sites, which are guarded by individuals with weapons and protected with booby traps, have been a problem for authorities in California for decades. But the recent discovery that banned pesticides at the sites are polluting water and poisoning endangered species pushed authorities to act, U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott said at a news conference at his office in downtown Sacramento.
"It is a particularly stark issue for us because we have over 16 million acres of national Forest Service lands," Scott said, noting that grows have been found in Yosemite National Park and other iconic parks.
"The cartels have in the last couple of years taken to using a pesticide called carbofuran, which has been illegal for all purposes in the state of California for approximately 10 years," Scott said. "They're not using it as a pesticide ... they're using it as a rodenticide to kill the animals that will come and eat the plants at the grow sites. They're just throwing it wholesale on the ground where the animals are eating it. This is a game changer, because it's a lethal poison."
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The use of such chemicals has led to further imperilment of species such as the California fisher and the spotted owl, officials said, and some of the poisons are now being detected in elk and other wildlife shot by hunters.
Scott and other officials said their focus is on illegal grow sites in the forests, not on California's newly legal recreational marijuana users.
"The black market in marijuana and these illegal grows become a threat to all of us," state Attorney General Xavier Becerra said.
Authorities have been targeting illegal grow sites in the state's forests for more than three decades, and said initially the bulk of them were found only in Trinity, Mendocino and Humboldt counties. Now, they say, they have spread to at least 40 of California's 58 counties and pose a threat to the public and to law enforcement.
"We've been besieged in recent years, we're absolutely overwhelmed," said Siskiyou County Sheriff Jon Lopey, who added that county officials have declared a state of emergency over the use of the pesticides.
Tracy Perry, director of law enforcement and investigations for the U.S. Forest Service, said that of the 1.5 million illegal plants eradicated at such grows nationwide last year, 1.4 million were found in California sites.
Officials say California now produces more marijuana than Mexico, and that the state is serving as an illegal growing lab for consumption from buyers mostly outside of California. The grow sites are contaminating and diverting millions of gallons of water, leaving trash heaps at hundreds of locations and endangering the public using the forests.
"They should not come across fish hooks at eye level," Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims said. "They should not come across trip wires connected to shotgun shells."
The new push against such sites stems in part from research conducted at 300 growing areas by the Integral Ecology Research Center, a nonprofit conservation group that has documented a stark increase in the presence of chemicals at the sites and in wildlife.
The group's director, Mourad Gabriel, said that the presence of such chemicals at grow sites has increased to 78 percent last year from 12 percent in 2012.
Most of the illegal pesticide canisters found at such sites are labeled in Spanish and are believed to have been smuggled in from Mexico, officials said.
The scientific evidence that the forests are being poisoned led to a $2.5 million increase in budgeting to combat the sites from a push by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Scott said, and investigators are hoping to shift their prosecutions from the low-level grow site guards to the cartels, which have shifted their focus from methamphetamine production to the more lucrative marijuana market.
"There is a manifest black market in California," Scott said. "It is of biblical proportions."