In the Golden State, dangerous drug cartels are growing pot on public lands—putting wildlife, water supplies, and outdoor enthusiasts at grave risk.
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In the gray half-light of dawn, eight figures creep through the dry pine forest near Quincy, California. Seven of them wear camo uniforms bearing the logos of various government agencies: U.S. Forest Service, National Guard, California Fish & Wildlife, Plumas County Sheriff. Most have blackened faces and assault rifles at the ready. An 11-year-old Belgian Malinois named Phebe and her K9 handler lead the way.
Number eight is tall and dressed in black, with a rumpled bush hat and a Springfield Armory 9mm pistol in a hip holster. With a kaffiyeh wrapped under a dark beard, and eyebrows (in his words) “like two caterpillars about to mate,” Dr. Mourad Gabriel could pass as a local interpreter on a Special Forces raid if this were Iraq or Afghanistan. Instead, he’s a wildlife biologist accompanying law-enforcement agents on an illegal marijuana farm bust.
The group traverses hillsides, fords streams, tiptoes through thickets of fern and willow, trying not to snap twigs or shake saplings. Radios crackle with whispers. Tiptoeing through rough terrain is slow going: It takes almost four hours to go three miles.
At last the goal is in sight: a dense garden of pot plants on a steep slope above Palmetto Creek. The dog team and two others move in while the rest, including Gabriel, hold tight down by the creek. Growers are often armed, and if there are any around, they could make a break for it. Runners usually head downhill.
Word comes back: Nobody’s home. The whole team can enter safely. It’s time for Gabriel to go to work.
As the executive director of the non-profit Integral Ecology Research Center (IERC), Gabriel’s usual purview is studying ecosystems and their inhabitants, from big cats to endangered invertebrates. He never expected to find himself packing heat and creeping through the forest, let alone facing other threats to his and his family’s safety. But he has taken up the challenge because of illegal pot growing’s insidious side effects: The lethal poisons growers use to protect their crops and campsites from pests are annihilating wildlife, polluting pristine public lands, and maybe even turning up in your next bong hit.
As soon as they arrive, officers begin chopping down the plants with machetes and garden pruners. Gabriel pulls on blue nitrile gloves, plucks a pot leaf and sticks it into a small plastic bag to test for pesticide residue. Then he kneels to examine a Gatorade bottle lying on the ground. Growers often use empty containers like this to store toxic chemicals. In the previous year, every Gatorade bottle Gabriel and his team found at grow sites tested positive for carbofuran, a neurotoxic insecticide that is so nasty it has been banned in the U.S., Canada and the EU. Farmers in Kenya have used it to kill lions. Symptoms of exposure range from nausea and blurred vision to convulsions, spontaneous abortions, and death. “They just leave these sitting around,” Gabriel says as he carefully swabs the bottle.
There are fewer than 500 fishers left in the mountains of northern California. So when Gabriel performed a necropsy on one individual in 2009 and found its body cavity filled with blood from some kind of hemorrhagic response, red flags went up. Tests showed the animal was full of an acute rodenticide (AR) so toxic it is not sold legally in the U.S. (Acute or second-generation rodenticides are exceptionally lethal, designed to kill in a single dose.) As more poisoned fishers turned up, Gabriel and other biologists were baffled. Radio collar data showed the animals hadn’t gone near farms. Where were the poisons coming from?
Gabriel started reporting his findings at scientific conferences, in part to see if anyone could help figure out what was going on. At one of these, a conservation officer approached him afterward and offered an explanation: illegal marijuana grow sites, where the officer would often see containers of rodenticides and other chemicals.
Suddenly the puzzle made sense. Gabriel and his colleagues tested 58 fisher carcasses they had collected over the previous three years and found that more than 80 percent had rodenticide in their systems. It even showed up in nursing kits, meaning the mothers passed it through their milk. Some animals tested positive for four separate toxic compounds. Since then the numbers have only risen. In 2016, the scientists tested 22 radio-collared fishers that had apparently died of natural causes; every one had some kind of synthetic poison in its system.
Growers bait open tuna cans with pesticides, which are often flavored like meat or peanut butter, or string up poisoned hot dogs on fishhooks. People have found bears, foxes, vultures, and deer with chemicals from grow sites in their bodies. One study of barred owls (Strix varia) in the Pacific Northwest found that 80 percent of the birds tested positive. And for every animal found, there are probably dozens more in a similar condition.
Gabriel and Thompson fear the poisons could spread far beyond each grow site and contaminate the water supply of towns and cities far downstream. The toxicants can leach into the soil and linger for years. Using water monitors, Gabriel has already found organophosphates—nerve agents used to make insecticides and certain types of chemical weapons—several hundred meters downhill from grow sites. “We know it’s happening, we just don’t know the extent, and we don’t know what other chemicals are involved,” he says.
Hendrickson estimates he has gone on about 50 raids in his nine years as an investigator. This one is typical, he says: probably two guys tending the plots for anywhere from two to four months, with occasional food drops and extra help during planting and harvest.
It takes about an hour for the team to chop down or uproot all 5,257 plants. While wholesale prices for illegal pot have fallen by half over the past decade, even at the current rate of around $1,500 per pound, at a rough estimate of a pound per plant, that’s almost $8 million lying in the dirt. Someone’s going to be severely disappointed when they come to check the crop. “These guys will be coming back,” Hendrickson says. “It would be interesting to be a fly on the wall when they see what has happened.”
Law enforcement officials think many trespass grows are set up by Mexican drug cartels, which prefer to ship marijuana from state to state rather than smuggle it over the international border. Growers arrested during raids are often undocumented immigrants in their 20s from Michoacan, experienced in covert agriculture and hard living. They earn around $150 a day for two to four months, much more than they would at a farm or winery.
Captured growers sometimes claim their employers are holding their families hostage until the harvest is collected. Whether or not that’s true, they’re motivated to protect the crop. Hendrickson estimates between a quarter and half of raids turn up some kind of weapon, from crossbows to automatic rifles. He has found elevated sniper positions set up near grow sites.
“I’m worried about my family going hiking and running across one of these, or my friends,” Hendrickson says. Gabriel looks up from counting empty bags of fertilizer. “I’ve hiked and snowmobiled through this drainage,” he says. “We’ve done spotted owl surveys here, too. There’s a nest right over there.”
Pesticides have been the biggest recent game-changer for law enforcement, Hendrickson says. The possibility of coming into contact with a neurotoxin sprayed on a plant or hidden in a Coffee-mate jar makes raids even more dangerous, not to mention slower. “We still make sure a garden is safe when we go in, but now it takes a lot longer to assess if there are dangerous chemicals or not. Safety-wise, it’s huge for us.”
Just walking through rows of plants coated with toxic chemicals can be enough to bring on symptoms like lethargy and headaches—let alone spending hours cutting them down in the hot sun under the wash of a helicopter. Gabriel and his employees have started getting monthly blood tests to check for pesticide exposure.
Some chemical threats are more immediate. At one site Gabriel was inspecting an unfamiliar container full of aluminum phosphide, a poisonous powder used to kill rodents and insects. It had gasified and built up pressure in the heat of the sun. When he touched it, it exploded in his face. Luckily he was wearing a hazmat respirator.
“My biggest fear is that some kid will come across one of those bottles,” Thompson says. “Carbofuran is pink, it looks like Pepto, like candy. Can you imagine what a five-year-old would do with that?”
As the last of the plants at Palmetto are cut down, Gabriel totals up his findings: 3.6 kilograms (8 pounds) of bromodialone, a restricted-use neurotoxic rodenticide, and two bottles of malathion, an organophosphate insecticide that’s basically a watered-down version of the nerve agent sarin. Each bottle is enough to make 1,900 liters (500 gallons) when mixed with water. All of it has to be left behind, at least for now, since moving it would require hazmat protocols and more time and money than anyone has at the moment.
Gabriel’s expertise in wildlife toxicology has become a huge asset to law enforcement, both in terms of keeping officers safe and gathering evidence for prosecution, says Forest Service patrol commander Chad Krogstad. “He’s helping us out tremendously, giving us environmental background data and even testifying in some of our cases.” But the work comes at a cost.
“I never thought that studying wildlife diseases would land me in the middle of the drug war,” he says. “But you can’t just stand by and do nothing.” He’s quick to emphasize that his role is strictly that of an objective observer. He’s not advocating or making arrests; he’s a scientist, collecting and analyzing data and reporting his results—even though that entails going on raids and packing heat, and in the end, seeing his efforts help put people in jail.
“I gave up being objective about this a long time ago,” Thompson says. “I think it was the day I looked at a map and saw a grow site maybe 100 yards upstream of a place I’ve taken my kids to play in the water and fish. That makes it a personal issue.”
Growing marijuana has been a way of life in northern California for decades. Even though more and more is being grown legally, Gabriel’s inadvertent role as “the scientist who helps cops raid pot farms” has—in some eyes—brought unwelcome attention. In Eugene, near where he lives, strangers at the supermarket and gas station have invited him to go fuck himself. Grower websites have posted the latitude and longitude coordinates of his home, and his office has been burglarized. From the pattern of door and room alarms that were triggered, it looked like the intruder headed straight for his desk. “That means someone was probably watching where I sit,” he says.
Early the next morning Nyxo started drooling and collapsed. Gabriel rushed him to the vet, but the dog slipped into a coma. That afternoon he had to be put down. Mourad helped with the necropsy—“one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.” He found Nyxo had been poisoned with brodifacoum, an anticoagulant rodenticide. A reward of $20,000 still has not brought in a single lead. Gabriel and Wengart’s daughter was born two weeks later.
Since then Gabriel has surrounded his house with high-def cameras and motion-sensor lights. He has learned to live with one eye over his shoulder, always scanning for suspicious cars or strangers. “I’m not being ignorant,” he says. “I have to be perceptive, for my family’s sake.”
Wengart is also a biologist, and serves as the IERC’s assistant director. She and Gabriel work closely on grow sites and other projects. “I worry about him less than I used to,” she says. “When he’s doing ground entry, that’s the only time I get nervous.” But that’s the only way to get certain kinds of information, by questioning captured growers, and the only way to make sure no one on the entry team stumbles upon anything toxic. The couple started out working together on busts, but now they try to take turns. Not being in the same place at the same time is both safer and more efficient. “It’s definitely a conscious choice,” she says.
“I think we’re all worried a little about Mourad,” says Higley, who often delivers public presentations along with Gabriel. “I wish he would keep a lower profile.” Higley himself has documented dozens of trespass grow sites on the Hoopa reservation, including one last year, the first, with a cache of carbofuran.
In his defense, Gabriel says legal growers have thanked him in person for drawing attention to the issue of illegal pot grows—not just because of the threat they pose to their profits, but also because the environmental and health risks could tarnish the industry’s overall image.
Gabriel goes over security protocols as everyone gears up and tests radios. “No wallets, no cell phones, nothing identifiable.” The chance of dropping something that could lead someone unpleasant to your front door, while tiny, just isn’t worth it. “If you run into a grower, remember: Turn your mic on, and the safety code word is ‘hammerhead.’” He shoulders his backpack and checks his pistol. “Everyone have their mace?”
Personal safety has become a primary concern for anyone doing field work on public land in California, Thompson says. “It’s an entirely different paradigm than five or ten years ago. It pervades every aspect of the job.” It’s too dangerous to send anyone out alone, which means having to pay two people to do a job one could do. Law enforcement regularly declares scientific study areas off limits because of safety concerns.
With all this in mind, Gabriel and Henderson lead the group up the hillside in the open sun. The field techs, two women and three men in their 20s, are clearly inspired by their boss’s enthusiasm. “This is real-world applied biology,” says Alex Reyer, climbing over a crumbling log. “I feel like I’m actually having some sort of impact for the better.”
Topping a bare ridge reveals Mt. Lassen’s snowy peak just above the horizon. On the other side of the ridge, a wide basin spills to the northwest. Somewhere down there, amid the dense wild lilac bushes and blackened 60-meter (200-foot) snags, is the grow site. Gabriel was on the bust, which netted 16,455 plants growing across 300 vertical meters (1,000 feet). One suspect was captured and another escaped by fleeing down the valley, evading two K9 dogs.
Today the team wants to catalog the environmental damage caused by two large campsites, to help plan a cleanup effort. Step one is finding the three plots, but in the past year, the vegetation has grown more than 2 meters (6 feet). It’s so dense that soon none of the team members can see anyone else. Drifting pollen fills mouths with a bitter taste.
It takes half an hour of sweaty bushwhacking to find the first piece of water tubing. Gabriel turns on a satellite tracker to map the plot, pulls on nitrile gloves, and starts digging through a trash pile inside a burned-out stump. He pulls out a propane canister, red Solo cups used to transport seedlings, a filthy pair of underwear. He counts empty bags and containers out loud: “Twenty pounds of 6-4-6 fertilizer… 50 pounds of 0-50-30… 1 pound of unknown white powdery substance in a Gatorade bottle.”
The irrigation lines lead along what were once rows of thriving plants, now barely visible indentations in the ground. A few still hold dead plants, their buds dry and mildewed. Someone calls in a dead bird on the radio. “Take a swab inside the mouth,” Gabriel replies. “Grab liver or kidneys if you can.”
Suddenly he pulls up short. It’s a single marijuana plant, small but definitely alive. “No way!” Just as quickly, excitement turns to concern. Growers often return and replant a raided site if all the irrigation line is left in place, like here. Could someone be here right now? But the plant has a taproot, which means it wasn’t planted by hand. Somehow it sprouted from a leftover seed, survived a winter buried in snow, and got itself pollinated. “Amazing. I’ve never seen that.” Gabriel shakes his head and takes a leaf sample to test for contaminants.
As it turns out, survival isn’t the only thing exceptional about the plant. Its leaves test positive for carbofuran, most likely from the soil, meaning the chemical persisted much longer than anyone suspected it could. According to official estimates, the chemical should have been gone from the soil within a month. “It’s completely new data nobody would have ever conjured up,” Gabriel says.
Higher up the hillside, at the edge of the burn scar, is what looks like a sprawling homeless encampment in the trees. Folding camp chairs, a pile of sneakers, and at least 20 cans of athlete’s foot spray are scattered around a dirt sleeping platform reinforced with logs. Four rolls of unused irrigation pipe as big as truck tires lie near a deep drift of food cans that smells like death. Each roll is a thousand feet long and retails for $250. “All of this was trucked in on someone’s back,” Gabriel says. “This is not done on a whim. This takes organization and capital.”
In a controlled setting, a marijuana plant uses about six gallons of water per day, which over a 150-day growing season comes out to 3,400 liters (900 gallons) of water per plant. Legal growers have found their once-unrestricted water use under increased scrutiny as the state confronted extreme drought conditions. (Some grows in Humboldt County have literally sucked creeks dry, leaving salmon and steelhead to flop and die in puddles.) Under a law passed last June, growers now have to secure official water rights to get a growing permit.
To put things into perspective, by Gabriel’s estimates the 1.1 million illegal pot plants removed in California in 2016 would have used somewhere around 1.3 billion gallons of water—as much as 10,000 average California households do in a year. He calculates that this Rattlesnake site alone could have used enough water in a single season to fill seven Olympic pools.
Near one of the springs, an empty jar of ibuprofen lies on the ground. This is where the one grower was caught: Fleeing a K9 dog, he took a bad jump and broke his leg. “I gave him some pills—he appreciated that,” Gabriel says. Not all of Gabriel’s interactions with growers are so friendly: He once had to help tackle a grower who had thrown off a law enforcement officer twice his size.
To keep growers from returning and replanting the site, it will have to be remediated, returned to something like it was before it was planted. By Gabriel’s calculations that would mean removing around 6,000 meters (20,000 feet) of irrigation tubing and hauling out all the trash in 50-gallon bags, probably 40 or 50 in all. The springs will have to be rebuilt to function naturally, an expensive and lengthy process. This site is close enough to a road that all the crap can be hauled out on foot; more remote sites require helicopters.
Remediation requires money and manpower, both of which are scarce to nonexistent—just as they are on the law enforcement end. Out of the roughly 80 grow sites Gabriel and his team have investigated since 2014, they have been able to remediate just 29 so far. “We’d like to get that to a hundred percent, but there’s just no money for it,” he says. “Right now it’s all soft money, grants through our NGO, volunteers helping. I’m on the cusp of putting up a GoFundMe site. Next I’ll try selling cookies.”
He nudges a grimy digital scale with his boot. “How do you clean up hundreds of sites?” he says, with an edge of bitterness in his voice. “That’s a lot of bake sales.”
Last September, the IERC team surveyed two grow complexes in Lassen National Forest. Together they covered 2.6 square kilometers (one square mile), the largest site the team has ever seen. There were 30 camps in all, each with its own cache of rodenticide, and more than 65 kilometers (40 miles) of irrigation tubing that sucked up 269,000 liters (71,000 gallons) of spring water a day.
They also found the carcasses of a bear (Ursus americanus) and a gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus). Test results are still pending, but they’re reasonably sure the fox, at least, is full of poison. Right next to it was the carcass of a turkey vulture (Cathartes aura); by all appearances, it took a bite or two and dropped dead. As he was taking samples, Gabriel watched flies land on the fox and die within seconds. “That night was the longest shower I ever took,” he says.
Twenty years after giving the thumbs up to medicinal marijuana, Californians voted in November to allow anyone over 21 to buy pot legally. By some estimates, Proposition 64 could double the state marijuana market to $6.6 billion by 2020. But as long as the plant is still illegal in other states, the demand that fuels trespass grows will continue.
He’d like to train other researchers and law enforcement officers to identify and remove chemical threats at grow sites. If enough people learn to do what he does, then he can step aside and become just another researcher again. “But if I stopped right now, it would be gone,” he says.
The idea of moving away comes up a lot at dinner, he says. The legal-growing boom is making Humboldt County a crazy place: Real estate is through the roof, and the murder rate just hit an all-time high. Gabriel’s mother is from Michoacan, and a lot of what he’s seeing in California is starting to sound like the stories he hears from south of the border. “I worry about raising a family here,” he says. “You do it for your kid, but you have to be there for your kid.”
The legal and illegal marijuana markets are different beasts, with different suppliers and customers, but in the end it’s all about growing the same plant. Even as the industry as a whole goes more mainstream, the ever-changing jumble of law and jurisdiction between different states and the federal government will encourage entrepreneurs and criminals to take advantage of blind spots and blurred lines.
As far as Gabriel and many others are concerned, only a uniform national marijuana policy could potentially resolve the issue. But if President Trump’s cabinet nominations are any indication, we may instead be in for a revival of the old-school drug war that President Obama let languish. Many of Trump’s cabinet picks, including Jeff Sessions as Attorney General and Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency, have opposed marijuana reform or legalization in various ways during their careers. Even more ominously, a bill introduced in the House in January proposes to completely eliminate the law enforcement functions of the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management and turn those duties over to the states. And some members of Congress have been pushing to entirely de-fund the Drug Enforcement Administration’s marijuana eradication program, whose budget has already dropped from $18 million to $14 million. California received more than a third of the funds in 2015.
As long as pot is still illegal in some parts of the U.S., the demand for illegally grown marijuana will persist. And as long as there are places where it’s cheaper and less risky to grow it, that is where it will happen. In the meantime, wildlife and the environment—and likely pot smokers themselves—will pay a price we’re only beginning to understand.
Article by: Julian Smith
Published: March 28, 2017 by Biographic
Read original here.