Cleveland National Forest Is now nation's top reefer hotspot

Pot growers chased from Northern Calif.

“The forest is ideal for marijuana growing because of the fertile soil content, the temperate weather, the elevation, and the fact that there are areas of the forest that humans rarely see."
  • “The forest is ideal for marijuana growing because of the fertile soil content, the temperate weather, the elevation, and the fact that there are areas of the forest that humans rarely see."

It’s Spring again in the Cleveland National Forest, and that means the marijuana buds will soon be in bloom. Pot growing and other drug activity has increased dramatically in San Diego County’s back-country in recent years, according to Tommy LaNier, special agent with the U.S. Forest Service in charge of the Cleveland forest. Since 1990, LaNier reports, more than 15,000 marijuana plants have been seized in the 550,000-acre forest; 40 so-called “pot gardens” have been raided; and more than 400 arrests have been made on charges ranging from pot-growing and cocaine-smuggling to methamphetamine lab production.

LaNier confiscated 293 plants from the men off Boulder Creek Road on the west side of Cuyamaca Mountain.

LaNier confiscated 293 plants from the men off Boulder Creek Road on the west side of Cuyamaca Mountain.

LaNier says the majority of those arrested for pot farming and other drug-related crimes in the Cleveland National Forest are Mexican nationals. “We don’t always get the top guys, we often get the guys who are just working on the gardens,” he says. “There are organized drug cartels that recruit illegal aliens from Mexico to come to the forest just to grow marijuana.”

Duncan Hunter: "Law enforcement in the forest will be re-established.”

Duncan Hunter: "Law enforcement in the forest will be re-established.”

LaNier adds that largely because of the illegals' activity in the forest, San Diego County now ranks number one in the United States in the “eradication of pot plants. The majority of the pot gardens used to be in Northern California, but all the enforcement pretty much got the pot growers out of there. Now many of them are down here. We’re doing our best to stem that tide.”

LaNier says the most popular type of pot plant cultivated in the Cleveland is the sensimilla, or seedless, variety. He says growers cultivate the female plant and separate the females from the males, which makes the female grow and grow, looking to pollinate, until the buds get very large and very potent. “The THC content of the dope used to be between 1/2 to 3 percent,” he says, “but now it’s anywhere from 14 to 18 percent.”

Some of the most popular spots for pot gardens in the forest are the remote, brushy canyons just north of Palomar Mountain off Interstate 79. “It’s an area that is totally surrounded by private land,” says LaNier. “No one goes in there. It’s a very common place for us to find the dopers. They hike down deep in the canyons there with some pretty elaborate equipment, too: plastic pipes and all the other equipment it takes. These are very ambitious people. We usually find them with infrared camera surveillance. We fly over in the middle of the day, and the cameras detect the irrigation, the cooler water.”

The hike is worth it for the growers, who can make thousands of dollars per plant. Each marijuana plant produces about a pound of pot, and according to LaNier, a pound of top-grade marijuana now costs between $3000 and $6000. “We’re talking serious money here,” LaNier says. ç That’s why most of them are armed, with everything from pistols to sawed-off rifles to AK-47s. These guys are armed for bear. They have a big investment in these gardens.”

There are some guys still out there that LaNier would like to catch. Two years ago, LaNier arrested two men on pot-growing charges. LaNier confiscated 293 plants from the men off Boulder Creek Road on the west side of Cuyamaca Mountain in East County. One of the men, who had a prior conviction, is “still in jail,” according to LaNier. But the other never showed up after he made bail. “They let him out because of his family obligations, and he disappeared,” says LaNier. “He’s still out there somewhere. But who knows if we’ll ever find him again.”

On a bust last year, LaNier came upon a pot garden in which the gardeners — most of them illegal Mexican immigrants — were all heavily armed. “They shot back at our officers at first, but then they gave up because they were outnumbered,” LaNier says. “More often than not, though, we find the gardens but don’t find any people. As soon as they see or hear the reconnaissance aircraft flying overhead, they clear out before we can catch them. But we get the dope.” And what do they do with it once they find it? “We destroy it in a remote area fire station,” says LaNier says, who adds with a chuckle, “Yes, we burn it. But we don’t tell anyone where or when we burn it.”

But recent federal cutbacks in the department of defense’s so-called drug war will make LaNier s job a lot tougher. Each branch of defense is a key player in the war on drugs, particularly in border regions such as San Diego County. The defense department’s supply of manpower and surveillance equipment — including helicopters outfitted with infrared cameras and other high-tech devices — is critical to their efforts. But the department’s spending on counter-drug activity dropped from a high of $1.2 billion in 1993 to $868 million this year.

Hit hard in the cutbacks was the California National Guard, which lost 20 percent of its $20 million budget for counter-drug work. In 1993, the National Guard, an important player in the drug war, carried out 511 support missions for state law enforcement agencies. But many missions requested by law enforcement will be canceled this year.

Captain Stan Zezotarski, a Sacramento-based spokesman for the California National Guard’s counter-drug operation, says the funding cut represents a 60 percent decrease in helicopter flying hours, a 50 percent decrease in surveillance of smuggling routes along the Mexican border, and a major decrease in inspection of cargo containers crossing the border and entering ports in Southern and Northern California.

“[The cutbacks] will have a big effect on what happens along the border,” says Zezotarski. “For example, it will slow our efforts to build roads for the Border Patrol, including one we’re working on right now toward Tecate. That will take up to ten years to build now. Those roads make the Border Patrol’s job much easier. The cuts will also decrease the number of soldiers we can offer to law enforcement. You’ll probably end up seeing more tunnels like the one that was discovered in San Diego a while back. That tunnel existed because the drug traffickers had no other means of getting across the border.”

Representative Duncan Hunter (R-San Diego), along with Representative Randy Cunningham (R-San Diego) and Representative Carlos Moorhead (R-Glendale), coauthored an amendment to the federal Crime Bill (H.R. 4092), which calls for an increase in the U.S. Border Patrol by 6000 agents over the next five years. Hunter, reached in his Washington office last week, says of the amendment, which was passed in the House of Representatives by a 417-to-12 vote, “The vote is a step toward finally controlling all of the border. With that we will see the decline of drugs in the forest. Law enforcement in the forest will be re-established.”

But the National Guard’s Zezotarski calls the amendment a “political one,” and suggests that the Border Patrol is not as effective in fighting the drug war along the border as the National Guard. “There are just certain things we can do that the Border Patrol cannot do because certain equipment isn’t in their inventory” he says. “We all work together, of course, but we are trained soldiers with night-vision and other military equipment. We are soldiers.”

According to LaNier, in spite of the potential for increased Border Patrol agents along the border, the budget cuts could have a “very negative effect on what were doing in the forest, because there could simply be more people coming into the area and less people to deal with it on a statewide level. We use mostly Navy helicopters, and so far all of our requests have been granted. But the effect on the cutbacks still could be felt here.”

LaNier says the National Guard works closely with U.S. Customs and the U.S. Border Patrol at border points and ports. “It’s all sort of connected. If there’s a decrease in border checks and surveillance elsewhere, we could certainly feel the effects here. We’ll see when we start going out later this month. This is the season when the plants start showing up.”

Two weeks ago. Representative Barbara Boxer (D-San Diego) called for stationing National Guard troops in the Imperial Valley, another place where drug activity — particularly cocaine smuggling — is increasing. But Zezotarski says the recent cutbacks will make it virtually impossible to meet Boxer’s requests without impeding the National Guard’s efforts somewhere else. “We can only put so many men in so many places, and cut back only so much in administrative costs,” he says.

The effects of the federal cutbacks are already being felt in Florida, a state whose illegal drug activity has been high for some time. The cuts eliminated more than $1 million of nearly $7 million the Florida National Guard had earmarked for drug enforcement. Flying hours were reduced by a third, which meant a big drop in the availability of National Guard helicopters for the state’s marijuana eradication efforts. Reached in her office in Washington, Representative Tillie Fowler (R-Fla.), who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, said, “Illegal drugs pose a deadly threat to our nation, and cutting back on defense dollars that go toward interdiction leaves our nation vulnerable. I’m deeply concerned about these cuts.” LaNier says there are a number of reasons why the Cleveland National Forest has supplanted Northern California as the hotspot for pot growing. “The conditions are very good here,” he explains. “The forest is ideal for marijuana growing because of the fertile soil content, the temperate weather, the elevation, and the fact that there are areas of the forest that humans rarely see. Only a small part of the forest is actually developed for public recreation. There are remote, deep canyons out there where nobody other than a doper would go. And it’s so close [to the border). Once they get past the Border Patrol, many of them head straight to the forest.”

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