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Where The Marijuana Grows: Feds Target Landowners

Oct 25, 2011
Originally published on October 25, 2011 8:27 pm

Federal authorities are cracking down on medical marijuana in California.

In the Central Valley, the nation's most productive farm belt, pot is becoming a more lucrative crop than almonds and grapes. The feds say much of what's grown as "medical marijuana" is actually sold on the black market.

Federal agents have been raiding cornfields and vineyards, yanking marijuana plants. And now they're using a new tool: targeting landlords, threatening to seize buildings where marijuana is sold and farmland where it's grown.

'California Can't Isolate Itself'

From the air, the scope of the marijuana farms is apparent. Neat rows of orange and almond trees form geometric patterns as a Fresno sheriffs' department helicopter lifts into the air.

Lt. Rick Ko points to a bright green patch in the middle of a dense citrus grove, where hundreds of marijuana plants the size of trees have replaced oranges.

"You see the black plastic next to this orange grove?" he says. "You can still see how big these plants are right here. They're well above that 6-foot fence."

There are no doors on the helicopter, and the pungent odor of marijuana wafts up as the helicopter hovers 500 feet in the air.

Growers used to carefully conceal marijuana deep in the national forests. Now, emboldened by California's laws legalizing medical marijuana, they're planting openly on farmland.

"When we're flying over these valley groves, people sit and stare at us, or wave at us," Ko says. "They pretty much ignore us now because of the current state of California state law."

Growers often tack recommendations from doctors on fence posts so they're visible from the air.

But marijuana of any kind is illegal under federal law. And the feds say that California is the biggest source of marijuana in the country, and that state laws are giving cover to interstate drug traffickers.

"California can't just isolate itself and say, 'We're just doing something else,' " says U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner. "There's rampant interstate sales of marijuana that are going, money that's pouring into California from criminal organizations all over the country, places that don't have medical marijuana laws."

Landowners Targeted

Recently, law enforcement agents destroyed 25,000 plants, and the feds are now trying to seize the land. The family who owns it leased its farmland to marijuana growers.

"Our clients did not grow it, they don't sell it, they do not use it," says attorney Don Fishbach, who represents the family. "Here they thought that medicinal marijuana was legal and people had permits, so it was OK for their tenants to grow it."

Several landowners who rent to medical marijuana growers were afraid to be recorded. They all said they didn't make any more profit renting to marijuana growers than they did renting to vegetable farmers.

The collision between state and federal law is creating confusion and panic among medical marijuana users, too. California's attorney general has called on the feds to show restraint in their crackdown, saying she's concerned it could make it more difficult for legitimate patients to access their medicine.

Legal or not, neighboring farmers don't like the way marijuana is transforming this rural valley.

"One of the facilities just down the street from where we're standing here is, I mean, they had a huge guard tower," says Ryan Jacobsen, executive director of the Fresno County Farm Bureau. "At times you could see individuals up there with — whether they were shotguns or rifles or whatever else — there was no secret in what they were protecting."

Jacobsen stands in his vineyard just southwest of Fresno. He points down the road to where authorities raided a marijuana plot because they were able to prove some of it was sold as far away as Boston.

The county sheriffs department says a single plant sells out of state for about $4,000. Jacobsen says that means if pot were ranked next to almonds and grapes, marijuana would be the most valuable.

"Just a couple plants is going to outdo anything else that we grow around here locally on a per-acre basis," he says.

The U.S. attorney's office is giving landowners 45 days to evict marijuana growers and sellers — or risk losing their property.

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And I'm Michele Norris.

California has been at the forefront of legalizing medical marijuana, and of facing the consequences. California's Central Valley is the nation's most productive farm belt, but pot grown there is becoming a more lucrative crop than almonds or grapes. Federal authorities say the marijuana is not all being used for medical purposes. They say some of it is being sold on the black market. And now, the Feds are threatening to seize property where pot is grown and sold.

Sasha Khokha, of member station KQED, has the story.

SASHA KHOKHA, BYLINE: The best way to get a sense of the scope of the marijuana farms is from the air.

(SOUNDBITE OF HELICOPTER RADIO CHATTER)

KHOKHA: Neat rows of orange and almond trees form geometric patterns as a Fresno Sheriff's Department helicopter lifts into the air. Lieutenant Rick Ko points to a bright-green patch in the middle of a dense citrus grove, where hundreds of marijuana plants the size of trees have replaced oranges.

LIEUTENANT RICK KO: OK, and we're coming up. You see the black plastic next to this orange grove? You can still see how big these plants are right here. They're well above that six-foot fence.

KHOKHA: There are no doors on the helicopter, and the pungent odor of marijuana wafts up as we hover 500 feet in the air.

KO: And you can smell it from up here. Can you smell it, Sasha?

KHOKHA: Growers used to carefully conceal marijuana deep in the national forests. Now, emboldened by California's laws legalizing medical marijuana, they're planting openly on farmland.

KO: When we're flying over these valley groves, people sit and stare at us, or wave at us. They pretty much ignore us now because of the current State of California - state law.

KHOKHA: Growers often tack recommendations from doctors on fence posts, so they're visible from the air. But marijuana of any kind is illegal under federal law. And the Feds say California is the biggest source of marijuana in the country, and state laws are giving cover to interstate drug traffickers. Federal agents have been raiding cornfields and vineyards here, yanking marijuana plants. And now, they're using a new tool - targeting landlords, threatening to seize buildings where marijuana is sold, and farmland where it's grown.

BENJAMIN WAGNER: California can't just kind of isolate itself and say, we're just doing something else.

KHOKHA: Here's U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner, announcing the strategy.

WAGNER: There's rampant interstate sales of marijuana that are going, money that's pouring into California from criminal organizations all over the country - places that don't have medical marijuana laws.

DON FISHBACH: Our clients did not grow it; they don't sell it; they do not use it.

KHOKHA: Attorney Don Fishbach represents a family who leased its farmland to marijuana growers near Fresno. Law- enforcement agents destroyed 25,000 plants, and the feds are now trying to seize the family's land.

FISHBACH: Here, they thought that medicinal marijuana was legal and people had permits, so it was OK for their tenants to grow it.

KHOKHA: I talked to several landowners who rent to medical marijuana growers, but they were too afraid to be recorded. They all said they didn't make any more profit renting to marijuana growers than they did renting to vegetable farmers.

The collision between state and federal law is creating confusion and panic among medical marijuana users, too. California's attorney general has called on the feds to show restraint in their crackdown, saying she's concerned it could make it more difficult for legitimate patients to access their medicine. Legal or not, neighboring farmers don't like the way marijuana is transforming this rural valley.

RYAN JACOBSEN: One of the facilities that's just down the street from where we're standing here is, I mean, they had a huge guard tower.

KHOKHA: Ryan Jacobsen is president of the Fresno County Farm Bureau.

JACOBSEN: At times, you could see individuals up there with - you know, whether they were shotguns or rifles or whatever else, there was no secret in what they were protecting.

KHOKHA: Jacobsen's standing in his vineyard just southwest of Fresno. He points down the road to where authorities raided a marijuana plot because they were able to prove some of it was sold as far away as Boston. The county sheriff's department says a single plant sells out of state for about $4,000. Jacobsen says that means if pot were ranked next to almonds and grapes...

JACOBSEN: You're talking about a crop that is, by far, the most valuable crop grown within this area. You know, just a couple plants is going to outdo anything else that we grow around here locally on a per-acre basis.

KHOKHA: The U.S. Attorneys' Office is giving landowners 45 days to evict marijuana growers and sellers, or risk losing their property.

For NPR News, I'm Sasha Khokha in Fresno. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.