Drug czar: pot guards endanger public lands
SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Mexican cartels have taken over much of California’s marijuana farming, boosting both the potency of the drug and the propensity for violence from armed guards protecting the crop, the nation’s drug czar said Monday.
They’re planting huge marijuana plots on public lands, creating a growing danger to hikers and hunters stumbling into the line of fire, said John Walters, director of National Drug Control Policy, in advance of appearances Tuesday in Reno and South Lake Tahoe, Nev.
California’s Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement estimated that 84 percent of plants seized this year were controlled by Mexican gangs, in what the bureau called “a major strategic and organizational shift” from recent decades.
“Many people think of marijuana growing as just run by a bunch of guys who are Cheech and Chong in the movies, kind of fun-loving guys,” Walters said in an interview with The Associated Press. “These are violent organizations. They’re using violence without hesitation – it’s part of doing business to them.”
The multibillion-dollar Mexican cartels have discovered it’s safer and more profitable to grow marijuana in the United States than to try to smuggle it across the border, he said. Instead, they’re often importing guards and handing them firearms with orders to shoot at anyone coming by.
They’re also branching into methamphetamine production, often using what authorities have dubbed “super labs.” And this summer authorities for the first time discovered 40,000 opium poppies growing in a remote area of the Sierra National Forest bordering Yosemite National Park. The poppy plants originated in Mexico, Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman Richard Meyer said Monday.
“The public lands have become a preferred area of operation for these organizations that are increasingly violent and sophisticated,” Walters said. “People think they’re hiking in a remote wilderness area, and they come across these plots or these labs and they’re run by armed and violent criminals.”
Three-fourths of the marijuana gardens discovered by California authorities this year were on public lands like state and national parks and forests. As recently as 2001, the majority of plants were seized from private land.