California is expanding America’s largest illegal eradication effort

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

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

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

“The illegal marketplace outweighs the legal marketplace,” Bonta said. “It is upside down and our goal is the complete eradication of the illegal market.”

In line with the new approach, the Annual Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP ) program, started under Republican Gov. George Deukmejian in 1983, will become a permanent Task Force on the Eradication and Prevention of Illegal Cannabis (EPIC), Bonta said.

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

The seasonal eradication program, which lasts about 90 days each summer, will still continue in cooperation with other federal, state and local agencies. They include the US Forest Service, the US Bureau of Land Management, the US Drug Enforcement Administration, the National Park Service, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, California State Parks and the California National Guard, some of which will also participate in the new task force, he said.

The task force will work with state Department of Justice prosecutors, the department’s Cannabis Enforcement Section and an existing Tax Recovery in the Underground Economy (TRUE) ) task force that was created by law in 2020, all for the purpose of bringing civil and criminal cases against those behind illegal growth.

Federal and state prosecutors in California have long tried, without much success, to target the organized crime cartels behind the hidden farms rather than the often itinerant workers hired to tend and guard the often remote marijuana plots scattered across public and private land .

The workers often live in crude camps without running water or sewers and use caustic pesticides to kill animals that might otherwise eat the growing plants. But the pollution they leave behind has spread to downstream water supplies and the pesticides can spread up through the food chain.

The workers are victims of human trafficking, Bonta said, “living in squalid conditions alone for months on end with no recourse. They are not the people who profit from the illegal cannabis industry. They are abused, they are the victims. They are cogs in a much larger and more organized machine.”

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

“Obviously, there are big challenges in terms of organized crime,” Bonta said. But he said he expects better results this time because the new year-round multi-agency effort “will make a big dent, a little splash and a lot of noise about our shared priority to address the illegal marketplace, including at the highest level .”

Bonta is running to keep his job from Republican challenger and former federal prosecutor Nathan Hochman in next month’s election. He is taking a familiar approach recently by Democrats nationwide by focusing on the dealers who supply illegal drugs, rather than the users who support the underground economy. President Joe Biden said last week that he is pardoning thousands of Americans convicted of “simple possession” of marijuana under federal law, while San Francisco officials announced a new effort to curb open drug trafficking.

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

For those trying to exist under the legal market approved by California voters in 2016, the problem has been falling pot prices, limited sales, high taxes despite the recent repeal of the cannabis cultivation tax, and the fact that buyers can find better deals in the booming underground marketplace.

Aside from the nearly 1 million plants that Bonta valued 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 lines and containers with toxic chemicals, including pesticides and fertilizers.

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