The four men bolted through the forest, exhausted and bleeding from multiple cuts. When they emerged from the trees on that dry summer night in 2016, they spotted a house in the distance. They ran up to it and knocked on the stranger’s door, then frantically asked for help in broken English. The stranger called the police. When the cops arrived, the men told a harrowing story of being beaten by armed guards at an illegal pot farm and fleeing for their lives.
The men, who were all Latino, described to the police where the farm was located, just outside a heavily forested area in California’s Calaveras County. Soon, the authorities sent up a team to raid the farm. What they discovered: more than 23,000 marijuana plants producing upwards of $60 million worth of weed. They also found two women they believe were selling marijuana for the Mexican drug cartels.
For months in Calaveras County, a rural, conservative enclave about 125 miles east of San Francisco, this drug bust generated local headlines. But federal authorities say Mexican drug cartels are propping up black-market marijuana farms like this all across Northern California. More than 160 years ago, immigrants, business tycoons and speculators poured into these foothills along the Sierra Nevada to mine the ridges and pan the streams for gold. Now weed is sparking the next gold rush, and law enforcement is struggling to keep cartels out of the game, even though recreational marijuana became legal in California on January 1 and medical marijuana has been permitted since 1996.
For more than a decade, the Mexican drug cartels have been illegally growing weed in the forests of the United States, and federal agencies have had mixed success destroying these illicit crops. Today, California is the epicenter of black-market marijuana in the U.S., with over 90 percent of the country’s illegal marijuana farms. The authorities say they’re finding cartel-affiliated weed on government-owned lands in states including Oregon, Utah, Washington, Nevada and Arizona, all of which permit some form of medical marijuana. The problem has gotten so bad that in 2016, Colorado began partnering with the Mexican Consulate to bust the narcos.
Today, activists in California counties such as Calaveras are pushing back, trying to ban cannabis farms to cut off the cartels. They say drug traffickers are importing automatic weapons and using illegal, highly toxic pesticides that are eviscerating forest animals and poisoning freshwater sources. “We’re going down the toilet bowl,” says Calaveras County Sheriff Rick DiBasilio, “and it’s not going to get any better.”
But some legal weed farmers in the area say the authorities and their allies are exaggerating the problem, playing on stereotypes about race and crime to instill fear in locals. As Jack Norton, a Calaveras County marijuana grower, puts it, “Just because a guy and his cousin want to grow weed in the woods doesn’t mean they’re affiliated with ‘El Chapo.’”
In early January, the Trump administration gave federal prosecutors more power to go after state marijuana industries, which are still illegal at the federal level. It’s still unclear how that move will affect California.
But in Calaveras, legal weed farmers fear a blanket ban would crush the local economy and cut off millions of dollars in taxes from going to local law enforcement. Last year, the cops in Calaveras started using that money to purchase ballistic helmets, ballistic shields and tactical gun sights—in part to confront a black-market takeover by the drug cartels.
‘It’s Not Cheech and Chong’
On a recent Sunday afternoon, snow dusted the trees of Mountain Ranch, a bucolic stretch of hills and valleys in the center of Calaveras County. Two and a half years ago, the area was almost entirely covered with lush forest, but in September 2015, two days before California created a state licensing system for medical marijuana, a tree fell onto a power line near the town of Jackson, sparking a forest fire that torched nearly 71,000 acres. The blaze fanned out south, incinerating large pockets of Calaveras.
Some of those hills and valleys remain charred, and the clearings reveal what had long been hidden: black plastic tubs filled with marijuana seedlings. These are used by sophisticated, industrial marijuana farms, and many of them are within a 20-minute drive from the Mountain Ranch town center. “It’s not Cheech and Chong,” says Karen Harper, a member of the pro-legalization Calaveras Cannabis Alliance, referring to the people who harvest this crop. “They’re not lazy-ass hippies. They work hard.”
Months after the fire, Calaveras announced a temporary ordinance to regulate commercial marijuana farms. That led to a flood of cannabis investors pouring in from across the country. The damage from the fire had decimated property values in Mountain Ranch, and investors showed up in droves to purchase land from families whose homes were destroyed. “We call it the green rush,” says Bill Schmiett, a local real estate agent.
Now marijuana drives the economy here. A study by the University of Pacific in nearby Stockton found that more than 740 commercial growers in the area generated nearly $400 million in sales and labor income in 2016.
But that study may underestimate the crop’s total impact. The county planning department estimates there are anywhere from 700 to 1,500 illegal marijuana farms sprawled across private property or government-owned lands in Calaveras.
Illegal pot farms aren’t new to California. Since the September 11, 2001, attacks, which led to tighter control along the U.S.-Mexico border, marijuana plantations have been on the rise in forests across the northern part of the state. That surge has increased over the past three years—and investigators have been finding more and more illegal pot farms in California forests. In 2014, Stephen Frick, a special agent for the U.S. Forest Service, and his colleagues culled 671,000 plants from national forests in California. In 2016, that figure doubled. Now that the state has legalized recreational marijuana, growers are rushing into rural areas in Northern California to set up illegal farms, with one county even declaring a “state of emergency” last September over the rise of black-market growers. Frick doesn’t think that will slow down. “All the indications so far this year are that [seizures of illegal pot] are going to continue to increase.”