It's been a banner year for pot busts, if you're rooting for that sort of thing. Last year saw its fair share as well — the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office has averaged more than one a week countywide since January 2013.
The follow-through? Not so much. A sheriff's office spreadsheet provided to the Journal shows that few busts yield convictions. Many don't even yield a suspect. So far this year, sheriff's deputies have taken out 56 pot farms, and charges have been filed in exactly one case.
That's a lot of law enforcement expense to hold very few people accountable for the environmental damage that's of increasing concern to the North Coast, and it's not looking brighter any time soon. The district attorney's office is understaffed and underfunded, and suspects are difficult to pin down at grow sites.
In 2013, the sheriff's office conducted 58 busts and arrested 68 people. It identified 102 suspects, and there were 17 busts where the office identified no suspects and arrested no one. Charges were filed in 40 cases, resulting in 16 convictions.
In 2014, the sheriff's office has conducted 56 busts, but has arrested only eight people. Investigators identified 66 suspects related to the grows, but charges have only been filed in one case. There were 27 busts with no suspects identified.
Sheriff's Lt. Wayne Hanson said many busts yield no suspects because they occur "out in the middle of the woods" with little to identify who built the greenhouses or tended the plants. "Just because someone owns the property" doesn't make them a suspect, Hanson said. "Usually their defense is, 'I haven't been on my property for a year or two.'"
That makes it difficult for prosecutors to do much in the way of holding people accountable for the environmental degradation taking place at some of Humboldt's grows.
"It makes it impossible," District Attorney Paul Gallegos said. He said his office dedicated an investigator and prosecutor to environmental crimes, but lost that attorney earlier this year to a private legal firm. The office gets some help from a lawyer based out of Sacramento, but "it's not like having someone in the office," Gallegos said. Ultimately, it will be DA-elect Maggie Fleming's decision whether to continue to fund an environmental crimes unit.
Environmental damage from marijuana grows has become part of the law enforcement line recently, though Gallegos said he's sought to charge people for environmental damage in connection with grows for years. Prosecuting environmental crimes hasn't yielded some huge turnaround in the industry, and Gallegos wouldn't quantify how effective any one kind of charge has been in pot cases.
"Charges follow the evidence we get," he said. "It's not like something is better than another. We can only charge an offense where we have evidence that it has been committed."
Natalynne Delapp, of the Environmental Protection Information Center, said local environmental groups, to her knowledge, haven't been tracking the effectiveness of prosecuting environmental crimes associated with grows, but said it's another tool where "traditional criminal charges around marijuana haven't been sticking."
Information needs to be shared properly between the enforcement groups — Fish and Wildlife, the Water Quality Control Board, the sheriff's office — and the prosecutors who are expected to follow through with the law and hold people accountable, she said.
Gallegos said his office has had some success paying for the cleanup of grow sites from forfeitures and civil penalties following busts, adding that he wants to encourage good practices when it comes to growing marijuana. "It's not the drug, it's the individual engaged in the act," he said. "I think it's right to ask [growers] and expect them to do more. ... I wish it were legalized — that criminal activity would not be so incentivized."
Currently, with 16 convictions to show for 114 busts, it's clear there's little deterrent.