Seasons pass like the fog creeps across the landscape here -- summer to autumn, baseball to football, sown seeds to bountiful harvests. So it is with marijuana in places like Humboldt County, where isolation and optimal weather create a breeding ground for vast commercial (and illegal) grow operations. And as the loud booming swooshes of the Campaign Against Marijuana Plantation helicopters fade in every corner of the county yet again, what is revealed in their wake is a simple fact -- the pot just keeps on growing.
Despite increased enforcement and improved tactics, BNE Special Agent and Public Information Officer Michelle Gregory said more and more gardens are popping up.
"The plants have always been out there," she said. "We're just getting better at spotting them."
This year was record-breaking for CAMP, with about 4.3 million plants being eradicated statewide thus far, compared to about 2.9 million last year and about 621,000 in 2004. Put it this way: CAMP started in 1983, and this year's operations alone made up about 25 percent of all the plants seized in the organization's history. But what is most surprising is how Humboldt ranks up with other counties.
Despite this area's reputation for being the marijuana mecca of the state, if not the country, Humboldt and Mendocino fall lower than one would think on the charts. Other counties, such as Lake, usually rank at the top.
Gregory attributed this to the perception here in the Emerald Triangle that marijuana is more community-oriented, more of an economic engine providing jobs to the area. The county is also more isolated and rugged. In Lake its a different game, where the terrain is flatter, the rains heavier and the community perception different.
"Lake (County) has always been huge for us," she said, "year after year after year it's been up there."
According to CAMP, officials raided 24 gardens this year in Humboldt, netting 134,976 plants, of which 104,443 were from gardens on privately-owned land. In one operation alone, 36,720 plants were seized from a grow site on private property. Break that down into cash, with one plant yielding on average one pound of buds with a street value equal to about $4,500 and that's about $165,240,000 from one garden. Big business.
Humboldt County has seen a substantial spike in the amount of pot plants seized by officials over the past six years, jumping from 15,809 plants in 2004 to 271,056 in 2007. And in these cases it's not the law-abiding 215 card holder being targeted by law enforcement officials, said Humboldt County Sheriff's Office Sgt. Wayne Hansen -- it's the profit-seeking organizations that use the system to their advantage and usually end up severely damaging the environment in the process, poisoning the soil and groundwater with rat poison, fertilizers and diesel.
"We don't target medical marijuana users," he said. "Bottom line, the people we target are abusing the system."
Even though the community perception toward marijuana may be more accepting here in Humboldt, there is a looming problem with large-scale commercial grows often financed for the benefit of what law enforcement officials call Drug Trafficking Organizations, a catch-all term encompassing Asian, Hispanic, Caucasian and even some Russian drug-running operations.
Gregory said that the majority of the Hispanic organizations running marijuana grows in California are independent of the large, well known cartels operating out of Mexico. However, she said, these organizations are deeply rooted in California and use their profits from the trade to finance other illegal activities, such as producing methamphetamine.
"There's so many different arms to it," she said of the DTOs. "So many different aspects."
It's no different here in Humboldt, where these organizations are setting up shop on an ever-increasing basis.
"There's been an explosion of marijuana grows outdoors," Hansen said. "We barely scratch the surface."
This "epidemic explosion" in large-scale, commercial grows over the past four to five years is also bringing with it an increase in violence, which, at the moment, has mostly been directed at law enforcement and other officials. Hansen pointed out an increase in home invasions related to marijuana and a drug deal gone bad back in May, where police were allegedly fired upon with assault rifles during a car chase. But he thinks its only a matter of time before it spills over to the ordinary person.
That's mainly because of where these grow operations occur. Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, and large plots of privately owned land are tempting targets for these large-scale grows due to their vast size and isolation. An unsuspecting person hiking in the woods, or a timber company employee going to work, could stumble upon one of these grows, which are usually defended by armed workers, and succumb to possible harm.
Statewide, however, 76 percent of all grows targeted this year by CAMP were on public land. Here in Humboldt it was the opposite, with 77 percent of pot plants seized coming from private land. Hansen said many grows on private property are found on land owned by timber companies.
Perhaps the largest obstacle law enforcement officials face in tackling these large-scale grows in Humboldt is simple -- resources. Too many grows, too little manpower and money to stop them all. But it's also an issue of the perception of Humboldt being a place ripe for the picking, a marijuana utopia where no one is going to stand in the way when it comes to growing pot.
Hansen best compared it to rape or drunk driving, that even if all the measures aren't "winning the war," that doesn't mean it's right to stop trying.
"How are we going to win this? We're never going to win this, that's impossible," he said, "but you have to maintain some level of going after it for the fear factor."