California's CROP Project responds to toxic threat of 'trespass grows'

CaliforniaCannabis may be legal in California, but illicit cultivation persists—especially in the National Forests, where it often takes a grave ecological toll. The CROP Project—for Cannabis Removal On Public Lands—is now bringing together environmentalists, law enforcement and the legal cannabis industry for a coordinated approach to the problem.

Despite cannabis legalization in California, illicit cultivation continues, and is a particular problem on the National Forest lands of the Emerald Triangle. There is growing awareness of the ecological hazards posed by these "trespass grows," as they are dubbed in official parlance.

Five years after California voters approved legalization, raids on illicit grows continue to make headlines, especially in the Triange. And the ecological tolls of unregulated cultivation are increasingly emphasized by law enforcement.

A recent case in Trinity County was noted by the Associated Press last week. A month after two men were arrested at a trespass grow in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, authorities are still assessing the environmental impact and clean-up costs at the 9,000-plant site—where trees were clear-cut, waterways diverted, and the ground littered with open containers of fertilizer and rodenticide.  

Quoted was Rich McIntyre, director of the CROP Project—for Cannabis Removal on Public Lands. "These places are toxic garbage dumps," McIntyre said. "Food containers attract wildlife, and the chemicals kill the animals long after the sites are abandoned. We think there’s a public health time bomb ticking."

Cannabis industry partners with law enforcement
Cannabis Now reached Rich McIntyre at the CROP Project's offices in Sacramento. He describes the group as the fruit of a coalition that would have been unthinkable a decade ago—environmental organizations, law enforcement and the legal cannabis sector.

"We spent two years meeting with tribes, county governments, law enforcement, conservation organizations, timber companies—all the regional stakeholders affected by this issue," he says. "And that includes meeting with the legal cannabis industry. Today the legal industry is one of our strongest supporters."

The CROP Project emerged three years ago from the Community Governance Partnership, a nonprofit that continues to be the project's sponsor, and the California Wilderness Coalition, "to address seemingly intractable problem of trespass grows on public lands." McIntyre is also executive director of the Community Governance Partnership, which he describes as a "broad-based coalition to address issues of social and environmental justice," founded in 2014. But now the CROP Project's board of advisors includes representatives of the California Cannabis Industry Association and the Humboldt County Growers Alliance.

McIntyre also claims support from the National Cannabis Industry Association, noting that he  just spoke at the California Cannabis Business Conference that the NCIA held in Long Beach last month. 

McIntyre points to an entirely obvious reason why this issue is of concern to the legal industry. "Forty to 70 percent of all black market cannabis in California comes off public lands, and it undercuts the legal market by 50 percent," he says. "I can walk into dispensaries, and I'm seeing grams for six to 14 dollars. On the black market it is typically half that much."

Citing law enforcement statistics, McIntyre states that 80% of trespass grows in the state are on National Forest lands, and over 90% are controlled by what he calls "drug trafficking organizations" (DTOs, another term borrowed from officialdom), some of them operating internationally, and shipping illicit cannabis to markets in the eastern states—through "gang organizations in New York and Chicago and St. Louis."

And some 95% of these trespass grows are "using chemicals and pesticides that are banned in United States, such as sarin-based malathion. They are smuggled back in by the DTOs."

He points to carbofuran as a particularly dangerous pesticide found at these sites. "A quarter of a teaspoon will kill a 600-pound black bear," he says. "It is banned for use in the United States, but it is produced by a company in Pennsylvania for export to Mexico and Central America, and smuggled back into the country."

Given that 57% of California's forest lands are controlled by the federal government (mostly the US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management), this is a far-reaching problem.

"More than 90% of mountain lions in the state are testing positive for rodenticide, primarily as a function of trespass grows.," McIntyre says. This also applies to 80% of fishers in the state, and 70% of northern spotted owls (because they eat the rodents). He cites another one of CROP Project's partners, the Integral Ecology Research Center in Blue Lake, Humboldt County, as the source for these figures.

"One of dangers is that same poisons used to grow these products are ending up in water flowing off these crops, and ending up in the products themselves," McIntyre says. "That's why we call it a public health ticking time bomb. When all the data on the vaping crisis is in, I think we'll find that the vast majority of cases were caused by unregulated and untested cannabis. When you walk into a dispensary, you know that cannabis has been tested and screened for pesticides—with the black market none of that occurs." 

McIntyre sees the CROP Project's role as primarily to spread awareness about the situation. "Our job is to create the political coalitions to support state allocations to address the problem. This includes educating the public and lawmakers on the issue and raise the alarm that our National Forests and wildlife are being wasted and slaughtered on a landscape level."

The Project's activities are now primarily in the three counties of Triangle—Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity—but McIntyre anticipates that it will expand to the rest of the state in the near future. He ctes the Tahoe National Forest, in the Sierra Nevada, as a particular concern.

Given the long history of civil rights abuses around cannabis enforcement in Northern California—especially during the draconian Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP) a generation ago—the notion of cannabis industry collaboration with police will sit uneasily with many. How does McIntyre respond to such concerns?

"I would say that unlike CAMP, CROP is entirely about trespass grows on federal lands," he replies. "All enforcement stops at the federal land boundary. Our only call for additional enforcement are additional rangers on the ground in National Forests to dissuade foreign drug trafficking organizations from operating there."

It should be noted that cannabis enforcement is not the purview of rangers, who are concerned with forestry, but the Forest Service Law Enforcement & Investigations branch. And whatever the CROP Project may advocate, current cannabis enforcement certainly does not stop at the National Forest line—private homes have also been targeted in recent raids in the Triangle. 

McIntyre ackowledges factors such as property forfeiture as driving people to start trespass grows—and over-regulation of small growers as driving illicit cultivation.

"Clearly, the difficulty and cost of entry for smaller operators in California is a factor," he says. "The taxes on cannabis in California are, in my opinion, too high (which is why 66% of the market remains illicit). And the refusal to allow more dispensaries in the state—there is only one for every 35,000 people, and most of these are located in coastal cities—is a serious limiting factor."

Reclamation in the back-country 
Cannabis Now also spoke to the CROP Project's regional field director Jackee Riccio, who is based in the Arcata area of Humboldt County. While McIntyre spends most of his time at his Sacramento office, Riccio actually gets her hands dirty in the rugged back-country of the Emerald Triangle.

"I assist on trespass grow reclamation," Riccio says. "This mean clean-up and containment of toxicants."

This work is overseen by Forest Service Law Enforcement & Investigations together with local law enforcement and environmental groups like Humboldt's Integral Ecology Research Center and Trinity's Watershed Center. Riccio takes pains to emphasize that her work is just reclamation—not "remediation" (which means actually cleansing the soil) or "restoration" (replanting trees and returning the site to exactly as it was before the damage). The contaminated soil and other waste is generally flown out by National Guard helicopters, and disposed of elsewhere.  

"This is very specialized work," Riccio says, but adds that she wants to get more stake-holders involved. "We're trying to get funding for training the Karuk in this work."

The Karuk Tribe is one of the largest indigenous groups in California, based in the northern Humboldt town of Orleans, and with much traditional territory in the forest lands of Humboldt and Siskiyou counties. "Historically, they feel they haven been very excluded from what happens on their ancestral lands, and we'd like to change that," Riccio says. She is hoping to get Hazardous Waste Operations & Emergency Response (HAZWOPER) certification for Karuk tribal members from the federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA).

A wildlife biologist who formerly worked for the US Fish & Wildlife Service, Riccio also used to offer horse-packing trips for hunters and adventure tourists with her company, TrueWay Natural Horsemanship & Barefoot Services. This work helped make her aware of the depth of the problem. "We ran into growers on a number of alarming instances, and rivers and streams we frequented were being contaminated."  TrueWay horses are now used in reclamation expeditions. "We just hauled out a lot black polyline, which was disposed of at a waste center," Riccio says.  

Riccio describes what she calls a "three-prong approach" to the problem. "One is an organizing effort to make changes on a policy level and elevate the issue, so we can relcaim all the backlogged grow sites as well as the new ones. Two, we want to increase the Forest Service presence in the National Forests, to reduce activation of new sites. If there's no presence on the land, the grows are just going to pop up in new areas. And finally, we want to increase the criminal penalties for people who bring these toxicants onto our public lands. It is now a class B misdemeanor to be in possession of carbofurans, which means a $1000 fine and 30 days in jail. That's not close to being a severe enough punishment when that stuff is getting into our water sources that communities drink out of."

Cross-post to Cannabis Now

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