CAMP Ramps Up
Big King City pot bust could be the beginning of another banner year.
Thursday, July 22, 2004
Somewhere deep in the substructure of the Monterey County Sheriff’s Office, crammed in a warehouse evidence locker, sits a half million dollars worth of quality marijuana plants. Acting on a tip from a hunter, the county’s marijuana eradication task force raided a set of pot gardens in the bed of the Salinas River near a vineyard outside King City on July 12. They found 1,110 plants, some water pumps, irrigation piping and not a soul to arrest.
Narcotics deputy Mark Caldwell, a member of COMMET (County of Monterey Marijuana Eradication Team), now must burn or bury the pot, worth an estimated $550,000 wholesale, but much more when packaged in smaller bindles for retail sale.
“I don’t know what I am going to do with it yet,” he said this week by telephone from Baltimore, where he was attending a federal government-sponsored seminar on the use of thermal surveillance devices.
The garden near King City was only a ten-minute walk from Lockwood-San Lucas Road off Highway 101, but not obvious to the naked eye. It was hidden among willows that had been cut back to make room. From an airplane 1,500 feet up however, the emerald green smattering of pot plants stood out against the surrounding vegetation.
“If you flew overhead, like we did, you can see it clear as day,” Caldwell says.
The flying and the spotting and the raiding have only just begun.
Caldwell’s unit is funded by a federal Homeland Security Department grant program that spends $500 million illegal drug suppression. Monterey County’s yearly share of $249,000 pays Caldwell’s salary and that of another deputy, as well as a deputy district attorney, and also covers equipment and costs.
Last year, the team found and destroyed a garden of 6,700 plants in Danish Creek, behind Los Padres dam.
At some point this summer Caldwell expects a phone call from a counterpart from the state’s controversial CAMP (Campaign Against Marijuana Planting) team, a nomadic task force that zeroes in on outdoor pot gardens, drops in often by helicopter and “eradicates” the contraband vegetation. With his pot eradication season already underway and CAMP announcing its kickoff seizure of 66,000 plants already this summer, Caldwell expects to be busy.
The man calling Caldwell for help might be Val Jimenez, CAMP operations commander. He’s been hunting down pot farms since April and already confiscated 71,000 plants, more than were found in all of 1983, the first year of the program.
Since then, the number of plants discovered and seized by CAMP has grown steadily. Last year, CAMP’s four regional teams seized some 466,000 plants worth an estimated $1.9 billion. Three-quarters of the confiscated pot was growing on public lands, such as National Forests.
Jimenez says one reason for the recent increase is a trend away from the mom-and-pop hippies that early CAMP raids pursued in Big Sur and in the pot-rich area of Humboldt/Mendocino/Trinity County, to large-scale operations all, such as discovered last week near King City. But even that garden was not as big as the 50,000 plant operations Jimenez has destroyed.
“That’s the big difference,” he says. “To us, a big garden now is 5,000, to 10,000 up to 70,000 plants.”
Another recent trend, according to CAMP, is the move away from clandestine gardens tended secretively by absentee growers to gardens on public lands with resident gardeners and armed guards camped out on-site.
According to the Attorney General’s Office, four grower-guards were killed in shoot-outs with CAMP last year in Riverside and Colusa counties, and there were 12 armed confrontations with hikers and others who stumbled on gardens.
The other trend away from rebellious Big Sur local-types, according to CAMP, is the influence of Mexican drug cartels.
Jimenez says several ongoing cases tie together recently broken-up pot growing operations with other narcotics.
“We’ve established that the same organizations that are involved in methamphetamine manufacture are involved in marijuana cultivation,” he says.
Hallye Jordan, press secretary for the Attorney General’s Office, says more than 80 percent of the cultivations seized last year were linked to “Mexican national drug cartels,” and of those, 80 percent were found on public lands.
“That’s something we’re especially concerned about,” she says. “They funnel that money into other drug operations like methamphetamine.” Asked for specific examples, Jimenez says the cases are still under investigation.
CAMP uses about 100 people from local, state and federal law enforcement. The entire CAMP effort will be funded with about $800,000 this year from various agencies, Jordan says.
The California National Guard—funded through the Department of Defense—provides ground surveillance teams as well as aircraft, troops and vehicles when gardens are raided. Lt. Barry Montcrieff, a commander of the Guard task force says his troops are mostly for cutting and helicoptering away confiscated pot.For Dale Geringer CAMP is all very counterproductive. Geringer is the California coordinator of NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws). He says he actually got involved in NORML because of CAMP, back in the early days when its helicopters were seen to be harassing innocent backcountry folk.
“I was really outraged at the violation of the wilderness, the peace and quiet,” he says.
NORML and its adherents believe marijuana should be put on the same level as alcohol.
“We think the whole war on pot is a waste of money, and this ‘problem’ of pot cultivation can only be solved through taxation and regulation,” Geringer says. “Otherwise they’ll have helicopters in the sky from now until Doomsday. It really sounds stupid when you think about how much money the state could make from taxation.”
With state and the federal government at odds over California’s efforts to make so-called “medical marijuana” available to those who want to use it as a palliative for AIDS or terminal cancer, Geringer and NORML are taking a whole new tack.
Just this week, the Oakland City Council received a ballot initiative for what amounts to gradual legalization of marijuana, known as the Oakland Cannabis Initiative. NORML gathered 23,000 signatures to get a measure on the 2004 ballot and begin moving toward what he calls a “Netherlands-model” of regulated and taxed adults-only cannabis cafes.
“Pending changes in state law, we’re calling on law enforcement to make private adult cannabis offenses the lowest law enforcement priority,” he says.
Geringer and others believe that the continued criminalization of marijuana amounts to a price-support mechanism for the black market. And even though CAMP has boasted record seizures in the last five years—vaulting from under 250,000 plants in 1999 to 466,000 in 2003—Geringer can’t detect a dent in the supply.
“It’s not like marijuana prices have gone up in the past years, so I can’t say there’s a shortage caused by CAMP,” he says. “The prices have been steady for six or seven years.”