Pot season in the parks


High Country News reported this phenomenon four years ago, in a piece by Adam Burke called The Public Lands' Big Cash Crop. But this year the story is making big headlines around the West as huge gardens of marijuana are discovered and destroyed on public land from California to Colorado. The Denver Post reported today that more than 20,000 marijuana plants have been found this summer on Colorado's national forest land -- most recently in Pike National Forest on Friday, where 14,500 plants along with garbage, a drying shed, a rifle and propane tanks were recovered. The Post says the pot garden -- about the size of a football field -- could be the largest marijuana-growing operation ever found in the state.

Michael Skinner, assistant agent in charge of the USFS Rocky Mountain Region, says the huge operation indicates that Mexican drug cartels "have discovered the Rocky Mountains." Skinner has requested $100,000 to cover costs for searching for the marijuana farms -- but with only 29 rangers overseeing more than 14 million acres of forests and grasslands in the state, the odds are against success.

Authorities are concerned about the huge illegal farms for more than one reason. It could be a life-or-death situation for hikers to stumble on the pot-growing operations -- Skinner recommends quickly getting away and calling for help. But the pot cultivation is also an environmental risk: the farmers are using pesticides, weed killers and rat poison on crops near creeks and rivers. In Pike National Forest, for example, the chemicals were within a few feet of Gunbarrel Creek, which empties into the South Platte River. And this month an 88,000-acre wildfire near Santa Barbara was blamed on a cooking fire lit by marijuana growers camped out in the Los Padres National Forest in southern California (30,000 cannabis plants, six feet tall, were found near the fire).

In June, hikers discovered a plantation in southwestern Idaho with more than 12,000 plants. In California this year, authorities have seized more than 300,000 plants, made 82 arrests and recovered $40,000 in cash, along with 25 weapons and three vehicles. In a story titled "Cartels Turn U.S. Forests in Marijuana Plantation, Creating Toxic Mess," the New York Times reports:

The number of marijuana plants confiscated by Forest Service officials has risen by an average of 51 percent in each of the past four years, reaching a high of 3.3 million plants in 2008.

The number of plants seized in California national forests alone has risen steadily from 569,000 in 2003 to 2.4 million in 2008.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) led an effort to give the Park Service $3 million more this year, in order to add 25 new law environment officers to its Pacific Region parks.

"Our parks shouldn't have to spend their limited resources fighting drug cartels when those resources could instead be used to educate and inspire our children -- the future stewards of our national parks," Ron Sundergill, regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association, told the Times.

Indeed. The waste of money alone should cause us to rethink U.S. drug policy. As has been noted in this blog in a piece titled "Legalize it" by Jonathan Thompson,

Billions of dollars and thousands of lives have been lost in the so-called War on Drugs. Hundreds of people have been locked up and many tons of illicit substances confiscated and burned. And still, the only real result of the war has been to raise the stakes of drug trafficking, making it more enticing to large organized crime networks, and making it more prone to violence.

Jonathan was writing about the drug war on the Mexico border -- now that war has moved to the national parks. It's unnecessary and a complete waste of resources. Legalize it.


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