Illegal marijuana growers pose threat to communities, ecosystems in the North State

Drug trafficking. Murder. Millions of acres of illegal marijuana fields. Most Californians assume the best place to look for these stories is their preferred streaming service, but they are taking place in our own backyard.

Thousands of acres of land in Siskiyou County have been overtaken by makeshift greenhouses and ramshackle infrastructure to support this organized crime. In the wake of the Lava Fire, which has burned nearly 30,000 acres in Siskiyou and forced the evacuation of many areas where illegal growers have taken root, law enforcement and residents’ worst fears have been realized.

As the fire raged, a total of 14 arrests were made by law enforcement, as growers flagrantly disregarded evacuation orders and refused to comply. One man even open-fired on public safety personnel while trying to enter the Mount Shasta Vista evacuation area, and was shot and killed.

This unfortunate situation demonstrates the complete disregard these growers have for the law, and they are placing emergency response personnel in imminent danger as they try to protect communities from wildfire. And the public safety impacts of the grows predate the events that transpired due to the Lava Fire.

Since May of 2020, the illegal growers have been linked to four homicides, and local law enforcement has issued a total of 190 search warrants, many covering numerous sites under one warrant. They have seized over 34,000 pounds of processed marijuana and eradicated over 350,000 marijuana plants. 115 suspects have been arrested or cited, and 46 illegal firearms have been seized. Residents feel terrorized and law enforcement is doing everything they can with limited resources, but all this has done little to deter the illegal growers.

The county has not adopted ordinances to allow for the legal sale and permitting of marijuana due to opposition from the local community. To be clear, all these grow sites are operating completely illegally. They are unpermitted, and workers are enduring squalid conditions, lacking even the most basic facilities like restrooms. As a result, large quantities of human waste are being dumped into the soil and polluting groundwater. And that isn’t even half of it.

Illegal growers are also committing environmental degradation that is leaving a permanent scar on the land. Toxic, illegal pesticides like carbofuran are being used in these fields and destroying ecosystems. Runoff pollutes waterways, endangering fish species and killing off wildlife in the Sierra Nevada.

Given that as much as 80% of cannabis sales in California come from the illicit market, these toxic chemicals are also poisoning unsuspecting consumers.

Compounding the problem is the demand these illegal growers have on water, which is already scarce given the state is poised to endure another serious drought. A recent Siskiyou County emergency ordinance estimates that they consume an average of 9.6 million gallons of water daily to support their illegal industry, while their neighbors’ wells run dry and the community struggles to maintain adequate water supplies.

These illegal grows are monopolizing precious ground and surface water resources, endangering legal agricultural and private water use by residents. Despite the public safety concerns, environmental degradation, and obvious undermining of the legal market in California, our state’s top leaders have failed to provide any real relief or partnership to local leaders. Rural county leaders and law enforcement have done everything they can, but the issue is far too big and additional resources are desperately needed.

I have been working to convene all relevant state agencies, including the Bureau of Cannabis Control (BCC), the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA), the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB), the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), the National Guard, and the Department of Justice (DOJ), in a task force to determine solutions. Because what is happening in Siskiyou County is a complete undermining of the law and all these agencies, whose entire purpose is to protect my constituents from the repercussions this criminal activity is causing.

I recently participated in an aerial tour with a member of the National Guard Counterdrug Task Force to explore the scale and devastation the grows have caused. They agreed the problem is far worse in Siskiyou than in any other area of the state. This is no longer just a local problem, and has far-reaching environmental consequences that are garnering federal attention.

We need a solution. I will continue to urge the relevant state agencies and their leaders to commit the resources necessary to eliminate these illegal grows, and hold those responsible to account for the litany of crimes they have committed against the land and innocent residents of Siskiyou.