Don Curlee: State's apparent biggest crop is no joke
Some say jokingly that marijuana is California's largest agricultural crop, and they might be right. Right or wrong, to law enforcement people, it is no joke.
While the vigorous growth of marijuana in California's foothills and on land owned or controlled by the federal government testifies to the state's optimum natural growing conditions, the activity creates none of the pride that officials and citizens feel about the state's 350 legitimate agricultural crops.
Crackdowns on pot-growing operations have been numerous, but California is the country's third largest state, and those spurred by the enormous profit potential always seem to find space off the beaten paths to produce, harvest and ship the weed to an eager nationwide, perhaps international, clientele.
In Fresno County, one of the state's largest, with a high percentage of mountainous acreage, recent emphasis has been placed on efforts to control the production and sale of marijuana plants for personal and prescribed medical use.
However, that measure of control of storefront sales and backyard cultivation has little effect on the vast acreages of illegal production and distribution.
Law enforcement officials have the keenest focus on the outlaw aspect of the crop, and the best concept of its volume, its enormous profit potential, and the vigorous steps taken by its producers to hide and protect their production areas and their clandestine transportation and distribution networks.
Not every county in the state has helicopter surveillance at its fingertips, and illegal marijuana production is judged by law enforcement personnel to be taking place in every one of the state's 58 counties. The Sheriff's Office in Fresno County depends heavily on its helicopter detail to locate and monitor production sites.
Monitoring marijuana "groves" from the sky is not only the most efficient way to keep track of them, but the safest. Stumbling onto a protected production site can result in armed resistance, and postings have been made in several remote areas to warn hikers and other innocents of the danger.
Fresno County sheriff's Lt. Rick Ko says each marijuana plant produces about a pound of saleable material worth $2,500 to $4,000. Sizeable plantings can produce as many as 1,000 plants per acre. That adds up to a lot of cash.
The blossoms of the plant are believed to contain the highest concentration of THC, the ingredient credited with causing the maximum reaction when smoked. Peak of harvest occurs as the buds droop toward the ground, ready to be plucked, dried and marketed.
Transportation of the finished product is a risky and a tension-filled operation. Those dealing in the stuff get credit for some of the most imaginative and sometimes unlikely hiding places in cars, trucks, trailers and motor homes. Fender wells, fake fuel tanks, phony spare tires, seats padded with pot are just a few of the more common modes for clandestine transport.
Imagination and technology are also applied by the growers in providing water for healthy plant production. Several groves that have been raided have yielded the latest in sophisticated irrigation technology, bringing water long distances from wells, springs, creeks and ponds to individual plants. One raid in Fresno County yielded 52 miles of irrigation hose.
Natural terrain and native growth are utilized more than technology to camouflage growing sites, especially in foothill and mountainous terrain. Native growth provides a cover that makes detection, even from helicopters difficult. Alarm systems display state-of-the-art development, able to relay messages to guards bearing state-of-the-art firearms.
Besides enormous profits, the one thing that hidden growing sites are guaranteed to create is mess, with devastation of natural growth and even wildlife. Crews' campsites are littered, often with pesticides and other chemicals in unmarked containers.
Illegal marijuana production may be big in dollar volume, but it takes an enormous toll on the environment and monopolizes law enforcement resources that society needs to apply elsewhere. And its burden on society through its users and abusers is yet to be measured.
CONTACT Don Curlee at firstname.lastname@example.org