Magazine article Newsweek

Mexican Drug Cartels May Use Legal Marijuana to Take over Northern California; Legal Marijuana Was Supposed to Hurt the Mexican Drug Cartels, but Narcos in California May Be Using It to Plant the Seeds of a Takeover

Magazine article Newsweek

Mexican Drug Cartels May Use Legal Marijuana to Take over Northern California; Legal Marijuana Was Supposed to Hurt the Mexican Drug Cartels, but Narcos in California May Be Using It to Plant the Seeds of a Takeover

Article excerpt

Byline: Johnny Magdaleno

The four men bolted through the forest, exhausted and bleeding from multiple cuts. When they emerged from the trees on that dry summer night in 2016, they spotted a house in the distance. They ran up to it and knocked on the stranger's door, then frantically asked for help in broken English. The stranger called the police. When the cops arrived, the men told a harrowing story of being beaten by armed guards at an illegal pot farm and fleeing for their lives.

The men, who were all Latino, described to the police where the farm was located, just outside a heavily forested area in California's Calaveras County. Soon, the authorities sent up a team to raid the farm. What they discovered: more than 23,000 marijuana plants producing upwards of $60 million worth of weed. They also found two women they believe were selling marijuana for the Mexican drug cartels.

For months in Calaveras County, a rural, conservative enclave about 125 miles east of San Francisco, this drug bust generated local headlines. But federal authorities say Mexican drug cartels are propping up black-market marijuana farms like this all across Northern California. More than 160 years ago, immigrants, business tycoons and speculators poured into these foothills along the Sierra Nevada to mine the ridges and pan the streams for gold. Now weed is sparking the next gold rush, and law enforcement is struggling to keep cartels out of the game, even though recreational marijuana became legal in California on January 1 and medical marijuana has been permitted since 1996.

For more than a decade, the Mexican drug cartels have been illegally growing weed in the forests of the United States, and federal agencies have had mixed success destroying these illicit crops. Today, California is the epicenter of black-market marijuana in the U.S., with over 90 percent of the country's illegal marijuana farms. The authorities say they're finding cartel-affiliated weed on government-owned lands in states including Oregon, Utah, Washington, Nevada and Arizona, all of which permit some form of medical marijuana. The problem has gotten so bad that in 2016, Colorado began partnering with the Mexican Consulate to bust the narcos.

Today, activists in California counties such as Calaveras are pushing back, trying to ban cannabis farms to cut off the cartels. They say drug traffickers are importing automatic weapons and using illegal, highly toxic pesticides that are eviscerating forest animals and poisoning freshwater sources. "We're going down the toilet bowl," says Calaveras County Sheriff Rick DiBasilio, "and it's not going to get any better."

But some legal weed farmers in the area say the authorities and their allies are exaggerating the problem, playing on stereotypes about race and crime to instill fear in locals. As Jack Norton, a Calaveras County marijuana grower, puts it, "Just because a guy and his cousin want to grow weed in the woods doesn't mean they're affiliated with 'El Chapo.'"

In early January, the Trump administration gave federal prosecutors more power to go after state marijuana industries, which are still illegal at the federal level. It's still unclear how that move will affect California.

But in Calaveras, legal weed farmers fear a blanket ban would crush the local economy and cut off millions of dollars in taxes from going to local law enforcement. Last year, the cops in Calaveras started using that money to purchase ballistic helmets, ballistic shields and tactical gun sights--in part to confront a black-market takeover by the drug cartels.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, snow dusted the trees of Mountain Ranch, a bucolic stretch of hills and valleys in the center of Calaveras County. Two and a half years ago, the area was almost entirely covered with lush forest, but in September 2015, two days before California created a state licensing system for medical marijuana, a tree fell onto a power line near the town of Jackson, sparking a forest fire that torched nearly 71,000 acres. …

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