It's August in California, and that means the state's multi-billion outdoor marijuana crop is ripening in the fields. It also means that the nearly 30-year-old effort to uproot those plants, the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP), is once taking up its Sisyphean task of wiping out the crop. The choppers are flying, the SWAT teams are deploying, and the federal funds that largely feed CAMP are being burned through.
"It's about the same this year," said Gregory.
In just the past couple of weeks, CAMP and associated law enforcement agencies pulled up 91,000 plants in Santa Barbara County, 48,000 plants in Sonoma County, and 21,000 plants in Calaveras County. So far this year, in Mendocino County alone, more than 470,000 plants have been destroyed.
The enforcement effort has also led to the deaths of at least three growers this year. A worker at a grow in Napa County was killed early last month when he pointed a gun at police. Another worker at a grow in Santa Clara County was killed two weeks ago. And last week, police in Mendocino County killed a third grower they encountered holding a rifle during an early morning raid.
While the number of deaths this year is high -- one grower was killed in Lassen County last year, one was killed in Humboldt County in 2007, and two were killed in Shasta County in 2003 -- there have also been other violent incidents. Last month, somebody shot out the rear window of a Mendocino County Sheriff's vehicle as it left a grow raid in the western part of the county, and police in Lake County encountered an armed grower there, but he fled.
CAMP and other law enforcement efforts may destroy as much as 25% of the state's outdoor harvest, but it is unclear what real impact the program is having. Prices for outdoor marijuana have been dropping in California for the past year, the availability of pot remains high, and use levels appear unchanged.
"CAMP is an enormous waste of money -- I've even heard law enforcement refer to this as helicopter rides," said Margaret Dooley-Sammuli of the Drug Policy Alliance in Los Angeles. "It's fun for them, but spending this money on that doesn't do any good, and that's a shame when we're in such dire budgetary shape on all levels."
"I think we are making a difference," said CAMP spokesperson Gregory. "There are still plants out there, but at the same time, the way we look at it, they are willing to defend their grow sites, so we're obviously impacting them monetarily."
Gregory blamed Mexico drug trafficking organizations for much of the illicit production, but was unable to cite specific prosecutions linked to them. She also cited environmental damage done to national parks and forests by illicit grows.
"Nobody wants our national parks and forests to be turned into illegal marijuana grows," said Dooley-Sammuli, "but the question is what is the best approach. The more we spend on CAMP, the more helicopter rides and gardening projects we get, but marijuana prices don't go up, and there is no measurable impact on availability. What we do get is increased violence in the national parks. The government should be looking at how best to reduce illegal grows," said Dooley-Sammuli. "One way would be to allow lawful cultivation as part of a regulated market."
One approach to defanging CAMP is to work to cut off the federal funding spigot. Since it is largely dependent on federal dollars, attacking federal funding could effectively starve the program, especially given the perpetual budget crisis at the state and local level in California. But that runs into the politics of supporting law enforcement.
"There are many federal funding streams that go to state and local law enforcement, and there is a lot of politics around that," said Dooley-Sammuli. "CAMP really has little to do with marijuana and a lot to do with funding law enforcement."
Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko is a case in point. He told the Wall Street Journal last month that although he is having to lay off employees, reduce patrols, and even release inmates early because of the budget crunch, he's spending more money on pot busts because "it's where the money is."
He has spent about $340,000 since last year on eradication in order to ensure that his department gets $492,000 in federal anti-drug funds. That is "$340,000 I could use somewhere else in my organization," he said. "That could fund three officers' salaries and benefits, and we could have them out on our streets doing patrol."
It's the law of unintended consequences that provoked the boom in growing on public lands in the first place, said Meno. "Around 2002, law enforcement said they started seeing a dramatic shift toward outdoor grows on public lands, but that's because they were raiding people growing indoors and on private property. Prohibition and law enforcement tactics drove those people out into those federal lands. Now, some of our most treasured resources are overflowing with marijuana because they were pushed there by law enforcement."
For CAMP, the endless war continues. "The laws are what they are," said Gregory. "Whether it's marijuana or meth or heroin, we're going to enforce the law. If the law changes, that's different," she said, responding to a query about the looming marijuana legalization vote. "But we're always going to have something to enforce."