Armed guards defend illegal California marijuana farms

Crime is rising in highly agricultural Central Valley as hundreds of pot plots proliferate to meet consumer demand

An orchard adjacent to where marijuana plants once grew, after authorities removed them.
Mark Richards for Al Jazeera America

FRESNO COUNTY, Calif. — Vineyards, fruit orchards and vegetable crops thrive in this bucolic region of a state that feeds almost half the nation.

But in recent years, the rural tranquillity of the central San Joaquin Valley in California has been shattered by a surge in illegal marijuana grows.

This boom in large illicit marijuana farms has given way to more sinister sights not usually associated with pastoral scenes: motion sensors, security cameras, barbed-wire fences and armed farmers.

Two years ago, someone leased 20 acres along John Schmall’s property line. A couple of rows of squash and corn masked the marijuana plants, but as the weed plants grew taller and the skunklike smell stronger, there was no question what the main crop was. The smell at harvest time in the fall became unbearable, and the presence of armed guards watching over the valuable crop frightening.

“I worry about my kids playing outside,” said Schmall, 35, a fourth-generation farmer who grows grapes for raisins on 100 acres.

In a brash move to capitalize on a 1996 ballot initiative, Proposition 215, that legalized medical marijuana in California, growers have come down from hiding in mountainous national forests where federal and local law enforcement crackdowns intensified in the previous decade. They planted seed out in the open in Fresno County and the rest of the valley. Pot cultivation got another boost recently when Colorado and Washington state legalized pot, which increased demand.

And yet another fillip may be coming this year. In November, California voters may face as many as four ballot measures to legalize the drug. Nationally, polls show that the majority of Americans favor legalization.

“Most of the time, marijuana growing is happening out in the open,” said Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims, who has to put every one of her 15 deputies in the narcotics unit — and even some off-duty officers — on the case during the fall harvest. “During the season, everyone’s working marijuana,” Mims said. “We can’t even call them plants anymore. They are really trees.”

One grow covered 54 acres with plants up to 12 feet tall. Law enforcement has traced sales of marijuana grown here all the way to Massachusetts, Tennessee, Florida and numerous states in between. Nor is it just Fresno County. Madera, Kings and Tulare counties nearby are also grappling with the same problem. “We have proof of interstate trafficking,” Mims said.

Aerial view of a home whose backyard was used for growing marijuana plants.
Mark Richards for Al Jazeera America

But this boom has brought so much crime to Fresno County — nine murders since 2012 — and complaints from neighboring farmers that the county Board of Supervisors this month passed the strictest ban in the state: no marijuana cultivation, indoor or out. The law is expected to be challenged. The county had already banned all marijuana dispensaries.

Some feel that is an overreaction. “This is very drastic,” said Joe Elford, a San Francisco lawyer who is challenging a similar law in the small town of Live Oak, north of Sacramento. “It’s an extreme measure when municipalities ban all cultivation indoors and out. This is not what the legislature intended.”

Indeed, the situation is a bit of a legal mess. Proposition 215 authorized marijuana cultivation for medical use in California, but an appellate court upheld local governments’ right to ban it entirely. Elford filed a petition asking the state Supreme Court to review the decision, and he expects the Fresno County law to face the same challenge.

In the meantime, the police are left dealing with a surge in illegal pot farmers. The number of marijuana grows in the county has soared to 551 multi-acre operations (there were none five years ago) and thousands of smaller ones, said Mims. Deputies have bulldozed and buried 240,000 plants on 117 large grows.

Police helicopters patrol the 6,000-square-mile county daily, and it’s not unusual for them to spot up to 15 grows a day. “As we’re flying, something that stands out is the brand-new fences people will put up within the fenced backyard,” said Fresno County Deputy Sheriff Mike Sill during a recent flyover. “What they’re doing is, they’re creating a taller fence that will hide the marijuana as they grow.”

An orchard where a fenced-off area has been created to "hide" marijuana plants.
Mark Richards for Al Jazeera America

Growers then string tarps on the inside of plywood fences to keep the marijuana out of sight. But from the sky, “seeing a bright new blue tarp is key (in spotting illegal grows)," Sill said.

Farmers will also sometimes plant a legal crop, carve out the center and plant marijuana in the middle. “The legal crop will hide the marijuana that’s being grown on the inside, so they’re using all the watering and fertilizing of the natural crop for the marijuana,” he said. Those are fighting words in a time of severe drought in California that has led the governor to declare a state of emergency.

Farmers who may have to forgo planting seasonal crops because of the lack of water are even angrier at marijuana growers. But, said Ryan Jacobsen, executive director of the Fresno County Farm Bureau, “The biggest issue is the crime that comes from these grows."

Marijuana grows have been found near schools here and in nearby Madera County. In the fall, an illegal operation that extracted THC, the main mind-altering ingredient in marijuana, blew up in Fresno’s hip Tower District. One man suffered severe burns. A 16-year-old who had tried to steal weed from a field was shot and killed by armed guards. The body was found weeks later, buried in an orange orchard. Some marijuana farms have even put up gun turrets to protect their crop.

These new neighbors are especially threatening to farmers who live next door to them. “I noticed cars were coming and going through my property, and I’d have 20, 30 cars driving through my yard,” Schmall said.

He saw license plates from at least 20 states stretching from the Northwest to the East Coast. He put up a gate to keep traffic out, and four times, cars drove right through it.

Confiscated marijuana plants and buds being held as evidence.
Mark Richards for Al Jazeera America

During harvest, the Schmalls can’t keep windows open because of the powerful smell. The growers next door put up makeshift shanties at different corners of the marijuana grow for armed guards. The guards cook there, shower in the open and leave trash in the fields.

Health code violations aside, Schmall heard shots fired in the middle of the night, and he worries that his wife and kids could end up in the path of stray bullets. “When it’s next door, it affects your family’s safety,” he said.

Ben Wagner, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of California, said the Central Valley has become the nation’s main source for domestically produced marijuana. “Organized crime is connected to that,” he said. “A lot of growers down on the valley floor are taking advantage of what they perceive as lax enforcement from local law enforcement.”

After all, the challenges are huge and the resources limited for many local sheriffs’ departments, and the profits that growers stand to make entice them to take chances. Almonds produced on one acre of a conventional farm may bring in $4,000. An acre of marijuana? Millions. Selling the resulting product out of state is even more profitable.

One pound of weed in Fresno County may go for just $1,200, compared with $4,200 on the East Coast, Mims said.

Derek Payton, medical marijuana user.
Mark Richards for Al Jazeera America

For medical marijuana users who grow a few plants at home, the zero-tolerance approach of their county law is frightening. “They ban first and ask questions later,” said Michael Green, who writes the FresnoCannabis blog and is collecting signatures for a ballot referendum to overturn the ban. “People are afraid to sign the petition.”

Derek Payton, 26, a software developer, said he inhales vaporized marijuana at least once or twice a week, the only effective way to ease his asthma symptoms. He grows two plants in his office, out of reach of his 5-year-old daughter. “Marijuana will never become not taboo until people stop treating it as taboo,” Payton said.

People like him, who benefit from eating, smoking or vaporizing pot, are not the problem, Payton said. “Unfortunately, we see a lot of abuses.”

Wagner agrees with that statement. “There's so much marijuana being grown in the Central Valley that it's hard to imagine that there are so many seriously ill people in California,” he said. “If you fly over Fresno County, you see enough marijuana to treat an awful lot of people.”

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