California’s Backcountry Drug War
In the grey half light of dawn, eight figures creep through the dry pine forest near Quincy, California. Seven of them wear camo uniforms with the logos of various law enforcement agencies: U.S. Forest Service, National Guard, California Fish & Wildlife, Plumas County Sheriff. Most have blackened faces and assault rifles ready. An 11-year-old Belgian malinois named Phebe and her K9 handler lead the way.
Number eight is tall and dressed in black, with a rumpled bush hat and a Springfield Armory 9mm pistol in a hip holster. With a kaffiyeh wrapped under a dark beard and eyebrows (in his words) “like two caterpillars about to mate,” Dr. Mourad Gabriel could pass as a local interpreter on a Special Forces raid, if this were Iraq or Afghanistan. In fact, he’s a wildlife biologist going on an illegal marijuana farm bust.
The group contours hillsides, crosses streams, tiptoes through thickets of fern and willow, trying not to snap twigs or shake saplings. Radios crackle with whispers. It takes almost four hours to go three miles.
At last the goal is in sight: a dense garden of pot plants on a steep slope above Palmetto Creek. The dog team and two others move in while the rest, including Gabriel, hold tight down by the creek. Growers are often armed, and if there are any around, they could make a break for it. Runners usually head downhill.
Word comes back: nobody’s home. The whole team can enter safely. Now it’s time for Gabriel to go to work.
A combination of ideal growing weather and proximity to tens of millions of potential customers has always made northern California a great place to grow dope. By some estimates marijuana is one of if not the most valuable crop in the country’s top agricultural state. California was the first to permit medical marijuana in 1996, and in the two decades since the legal market alone has ballooned to $2.7 billion per year, putting it somewhere between lettuce and grapes. Almost two-thirds of the country’s total legal harvest comes from the Sunshine State.
One consequence of legalization, ironically, has been an explosion in illegal cultivation, much of it on the state’s vast and remote stretches of public lands. National forests and even national parks have seen a surge in large-scale “trespass grows,” some with tens of thousands of plants spread across dozens of acres. As much as 80 percent of pot eradicated in California is grown on federal lands, and that is just the fraction authorities have found. The surge has overwhelmed law enforcement agencies whose resources are already stretched thin. Here in the Plumas National Forest, for instance, three officers have to cover 1,790 square miles. That’s why so many different agencies are cooperating on this raid.
But Gabriel, the executive director of the nonprofit Integral Ecology Research Center (IERC), is along because of a new and more insidious problem: the lethal poisons growers are using to protect their crops and campsites, which are annihilating wildlife, polluting pristine public lands, and maybe even ending up in your next bong hit.
At the Palmetto site, bright green plants sprout from shallow holes gouged into the hillside. Some plants are over eight feet tall—a sativa strain, known for energizing highs—which others are shorter, with the darker leaves of mellower indica. A tangled web of plastic irrigation lines feed every hole. It smells like you’d expect a pot garden in the sun to smell, herbal and musky and medicinal all at once.
Officers start chopping down the plants with machetes and garden pruners. Gabriel pulls on blue nitrile gloves, plucks a leaf and sticks it in a small plastic bag to test for pesticide residue. Then he kneels to examine a Gatorade bottle lying on the ground. Growers often use empty containers like this to store toxic chemicals. Last year, every Gatorade bottle Gabriel and his team found at grow sites tested positive for carbofuran, a neurotoxic insecticide that is so nasty it has been banned in the US, Canada and the EU. Symptoms of exposure range from nausea and blurred vision to convulsions, spontaneous abortions and death. Farmers in Kenya have used it to kill lions.
“They just leave these sitting around,” Gabriel says as he carefully swabs the bottle. “The chemicals becomes a risk not just to the officers eradicating the plants, but to wildlife.”
In 2009, Gabriel was studying Pacific fishers, cat-sized carnivores that live in old growth forests in the Rockies and Sierra Nevadas. Fishers look cute and cuddly, but they’re the only animals that regularly kill and eat porcupines. There are fewer than 500 left in northern California, so when one turned up dead with acute rodenticide (AR) in its system, it sent up red flags. (Acute or second-generation rodenticides are exceptionally lethal, designed to kill in a single dose.) More poisoned fishers started turning up, but biologists were baffled. Radio collar data showed the animals hadn’t gone near farms. Where were the poisons coming from?
When law enforcement officers told Gabriel they were starting to find poisons in trespass grow sites, the puzzle made sense. He and his colleagues tested fisher carcasses they had collected over the past three years, and found more than 80 percent had rodenticide in their systems. It turned up in nursing kits, meaning the mothers passed it through their milk. Some animals tested positive for four separate toxic compounds—and that was only the carcasses they could find. Since then the numbers have only risen: in the past year, out of 22 fishers they tested, every one was positive.
Some 50 different toxicants have turned up at grow sites. Growers use the poisons to keep rodents and other animals from eating the sugar-rich sprouting plants, gnawing on irrigation tubing and invading their campsites in search of food. Acute rodenticides cause neurological damage and internal bleeding. Animals drown in their own blood or stumble around until they’re eaten themselves, passing the toxin up the food chain to predators like owls and fishers.
Growers bait open tuna cans with pesticides, which are often flavored like meat or peanut butter, or string up poisoned hot dogs on fishhooks. People have found bears, foxes, vultures and deer with chemicals from grow sites in their bodies. One study of barred owls found 80 percent tested positive. And for every animal found, there are probably dozens more out there.
“It’s a massive problem,” says Craig Thompson, a wildlife ecologist with the Forest Service. “People don’t tend to grasp the industrial scale of what’s going on. There are thousands of these sites in places the public thinks are pristine, with obscene amounts of chemicals at each one. Each one is a little environmental disaster.”
Thompson also studies fishers in the Sierras, and is one of the few scientists besides Gabriel who studies the problem firsthand. “I can stand at intersection of two forest roads and generally know of three or four pot gardens within a quarter or half a mile.” The toxins enter the soil and linger for years, spreading far beyond each site and contaminating the water supply of towns and cities far downstream.
“I think they were out of here already, maybe to resupply,” says Chris Hendrickson, a detective with Plumas County Sheriff’s Office who coordinated the raid. Hendrickson is soft-spoken, with glasses and a light mustache. He’s sifting through the mess of the growers’ campsite, a dirt platform under a camouflage tarp just beyond the last plot. It has everything a few people would need to live for months: sleeping bags, cots, a propane stove, bug spray, cartons of eggs and bags of rice, potatoes and sugar. Many of the food labels are in Spanish; a jar of pickled nopales, prickly pear cactus pads, sits near a pile of dirty clothes and a solar cell phone charger.
Hendrickson estimates he has gone on about 50 raid in his nine years as an investigator. This one is a typical site, he says: probably two guys tending the plots for anywhere from two to four months, with occasional food drops and extra help during planting and harvest.
It takes about an hour for the team to chop down or uproot all 5,257 plants. Wholesale prices have been dropping lately—one reason illegal grows have proliferated, to make up the difference—but even at $1,500 per pound, and a rough estimate of a pound per plant, that’s almost $8 million lying in the dirt.
Officials suspect that many trespass grows are set up by Mexican drug cartels, who prefer to ship marijuana from state to state than smuggle it over the border. Growers are often undocumented immigrants from Michoacan in their 20s, experienced in covert agriculture and hard living. They earn around $150 a day for two to four months, much more than they would at a farm or winery.
“These guys will be coming back,” Hendrickson says. “It would interesting to be a fly on the wall when they see what has happened.” Growers who are arrested sometimes claim their employers are holding their families hostage until the harvest is collected. Whether or not that’s true, they’re motivated to protect the crop. Hendrickson estimates between a quarter and one-half of raids turn up some kind of weapon, from crossbows to automatic rifles. He has found elevated sniper positions set up near grow sites.
Growers have followed, detained, threatened, pursued, and shot at officers and civilians, including scientists and field techs. One Forest Service biologist who stumbled on a grow site in the Sequoia National Forest was chased for close to an hour by armed growers. When he briefly lost radio contact, his supervisors feared he was captured or dead, but he made it out safely. In a single week this summer, two K9 dogs were stabbed while apprehending suspects at trespass grows. (Both survived and have returned to work.)
“I’m worried about my family going hiking and running across one of these, or my friends,” Hendrickson says. Gabriel looks up from counting empty bags of fertilizer. “I’ve hiked and snowmobiled through this drainage,” he says. “We’ve done spotted owl surveys here, too. There’s a nest right over there.”
Pesticides have been the biggest recent game-changer for law enforcement, Hendrickson says. The possibility of coming in contact with a neurotoxin sprayed on a plant or hidden in a Coffee-mate jar makes raids even more dangerous, not to mention slower. “We still make sure a garden is safe when we go in, but now it takes a lot longer to assess if there are dangerous chemicals or not. Safety-wise, it’s huge for us.”
Just walking through rows of plants coated with toxic chemicals can be enough to bring on symptoms like lethargy and headaches, let alone spending hours cutting them down in the hot sun under the wash of a helicopter. Gabriel and his employees have started getting monthly blood tests to check for pesticide exposure.
Not all chemical threats are so subtle. At one site Gabriel was inspecting an unfamiliar container when it exploded in his face. It was full of aluminum phosphide, a poisonous powder used to kill rodents and insects. It had gasified and built up pressure in the heat of the sun. Luckily he was wearing a hazmat respirator.
“My biggest fear is that some kid will come across one of those bottles,” Thompson says. “Carbofuran is pink, it looks like Pepto, like candy. Can you imagine what a five-year-old would do with that?”
As the last of the plants at Palmetto are cut down, Gabriel totals up his findings: eight pounds of bromodialone, a restricted-use neurotoxic rodenticide, and two bottles of malathion, an organophosphate insecticide that’s basically a watered-down version of the nerve agent sarin. Each bottle is enough to make 500 gallons when mixed with water. All of it has to be left behind, since moving it would require hazmat protocols and more time and money than anyone has at the moment.
Gabriel’s expertise in wildlife toxicology has become a huge asset to law enforcement, both in terms of keeping officers safe and gathering evidence for prosecution, says Forest Service patrol commander Chad Krogstad. “He’s helping us out tremendously, giving us environmental background data and even testifying in some of our cases.” But the work comes at a cost.
That evening in a tiny pizzeria in nearby Greenville, the stress of the morning’s efforts shows in Gabriel’s face and posture. Usually he’s fizzing with energy, peppering conversations with “dude!” and going off on endearingly geeky tangents about animal behavior or chemistry like a kid talking Minecraft. Now he’s glancing at the clock wondering where dinner is. Three simultaneous orders have overwhelmed the kitchen.
“I never thought that studying wildlife diseases would land me in the middle of the drug war,” he says. He’s quick to emphasize that his role is strictly that of an objective observer. He’s not advocating or making arrests; he’s a scientist, collecting and analyzing data and reporting his results, even though that entails going on raids and packing heat and in the end seeing his efforts help put people in jail. “But you can’t just stand by and do nothing.”
“I gave up being objective about this a long time ago,” Thompson says. “I think it was the day I looked at a map and saw a grow site maybe 100 yards upstream of a place I’ve taken my kids to play in the water and fish. That makes it a personal issue.”
It’s an unusual position for a scientist, one that’s often uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous. Gabriel’s many published papers and public presentations on the topic have made him one of the few de facto faces of the grow site poison issue. In the heart of drug country, that’s not a good kind of notoriety. In Eugene, near where Gabriel lives, strangers have invited him to go fuck himself at the supermarket and gas station. (“Lots of blogs have posted photos of me—I think I have a pretty distinctive nose,” he says.) Grower websites have posted the latitude and longitude of his home, and his office has been broken into. From the pattern of door and room alarms that were triggered, it looks like the intruder headed straight for his desk. “That means someone was probably watching where I sit all the time.”
The worst came one evening in February 2014. Gabriel and his wife Greta Wengart, a fellow biologists who was pregnant at the time, called their two dogs in from the back yard. Nyxo, a 100-pound black lab mix, had been barking at something across the fence. He was a gentle giant they had adopted from a local shelter ten years before, after he had been shot at, tossed out of a truck and left for dead. Nyxo seemed sluggish as he went to sleep. In the middle of the night they heard him throwing up.
Early the next morning Nyxo started drooling and collapsed. Gabriel rushed him to the vet, but the dog slipped into a coma. At 2:15 pm he had to be put down. Mourad helped with the necropsy—“one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.” It showed Nyxo had been poisoned with brodifacoum, an anticoagulant rodenticide. A reward of $20,000 still has not brought in a single lead. Their daughter was born two weeks later.
Since then Gabriel has surrounded his house with high-def cameras and motion-sensor lights. He has learned to live with one eye over his shoulder, always scanning for suspicious cars or strangers. “I’m not being ignorant,” he says. “I have to be perceptive, for my family’s sake.”
Gabriel and Wengart works closely on grow sites and other projects. “I worry about him less than I used to,” she says. “When he’s doing ground entry is the only time I get nervous.” But that’s the only way to get certain kinds of information, like questioning captured growers, and to make sure no one on the team stumbles onto anything toxic. The couple started out working together on busts, but now they try to take turns. Not being in the same place at the same time is both safer and more efficient. “It’s definitely a conscious choice,” she says.
“I think we’re all worried a little about Mourad,” says Mark Higley, a wildlife biologist with the Hoopa Tribe in Humboldt County. “I wish he would keep a lower profile.” Higley has documented dozens of grow sites on the reservation, including one this year, the first, with a cache of carbofuran. He and Gabriel often do public presentations together on trespass grow site pollution. “Who are these people, how pissed off are they at us?” he says. “You just don’t know.”
In his defense, Gabriel says some growers actually thank him for drawing attention to the environmental and health risks of illegal pot. Granted, they’re usually long-established, small-scale businesses whose profits are threatened by big illegal operations. But cultivators have come up after presentations and volunteered new information, like reason growers use rodenticide: not to keep rats out of camp, but because they gnaw through irrigation pipes and the plants themselves.
Early the next morning, Gabriel and five field techs from IERC park along a dirt road in the hills northwest of Quincy. The brushy slopes bristle with blackened tree trunks, remnants of a forest fire years ago. The team is here to survey a grow site nicknamed Rattlesnake that was busted last year. Henderson is along for security, along with a burly National Guardsman from a specialized unit trained in chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats. “Mourad’s a badass,” he says. He doesn’t want his name used and later pulls on a balaclava for a group photo. “He’s smarter than all of us, and he’s a goat on the trails.”
Gabriel goes over security protocols as everyone gears up and tests radios. “No wallets, no cell phones, nothing identifiable.” The chance of dropping something that could lead someone unpleasant to your front door, while tiny, just isn’t worth it. “If you run into a grower, remember: turn your mike on, and the safety code word is ‘hammerhead’.” He shoulders his backpack and checks his pistol. “Everyone have their mace?”
Personal safety has become a primary concern for anyone doing field work in public land in California, Thompson says. “It’s an entirely different paradigm than five or ten years ago. It pervades every aspect of the job.” It’s too dangerous to send anyone out alone, which means having to pay two do to a job person could have done otherwise. Law enforcement regularly declares study areas off limits.
“My techs are going in with guys with M-16s to recover dead animals, and that’s just to do our normal wildlife job,” Thompson says. Techs are taught to identify signs of illegal grow sites like trash, new trails, and sneaker prints in places people don’t tend to wear Nikes. They also learn how to appear as nonthreatening as possible in the field: no camo clothing, carry equipment visibly. “I have to talk about it in job interviews now when I hire people. It used to be bears, snakes, driving mountain roads. Now it’s pot gardens.” It’s enough to scare away applicants.
With all this in mind, Garbriel and Henderson lead the group up the hillside in the open sun. The techs, two women and three men in their 20s, are clearly inspired by their boss’s enthusiasm, despite the added risk. “This is real-world applied biology,” says Alex Reyer, climbing over a crumbling log. “I feel like I’m actually having some sort of impact for the better.”
Topping a bare ridge reveals a view of Mt. Lassen’s snowy peak. On the other side a wide basin spills to the northwest. Somewhere down there, amid the dense wild lilac bushes and blackened 200-foot snags, is the Rattlensnake site. Gabriel was on the bust, which netted two suspects (one captured), two campsites and 16,455 plants growing across 1,000 vertical feet.
Today the team wants to catalog the environmental damage to help plan a cleanup effort. Step one is finding the three plots, but the six-foot high vegetation is dense, and soon nobody can see anyone else. Drifting pollen fills mouths with a bitter taste.
It takes half an hour of sweaty bushwhacking to find the first piece of water tubing. Gabriel turns on a satellite tracker to map the plot, pulls on nitrile gloves and starts digging through a trash pile inside a burned-out stump: propane canister, red Solo cups to transport seedlings, a filthy pair of underwear. He counts empty bags and containers out loud: “Twenty pounds of 6-4-6 fertilizer…50 pounds of 0-50-30…one pound of unknown white powdery substance in a Gatorade bottle.”
The irrigation lines lead along what were once rows of thriving plants, now barely visible indentations in the ground. A few still hold dead plants, their buds dry and mildewed. Someone call in a dead bird on the radio. “Take a swab inside the mouth,” Gabriel replies. “Grab liver or kidneys if you can.”
Suddenly he pulls up short. It’s a single marijuana plant, small but definitely alive. “No way!” Just as quickly, excitement turns to concern. Growers often return and replant a raided site if all the irrigation line is left in place, like here. Could someone be here right now? But the plant has a taproot, which means it wasn’t planted by hand. Somehow it sprouted from a leftover seed, survived a winter buried in snow and got itself pollinated. “Amazing. I’ve never seen that.” Gabriel shakes his head and takes a leaf sample to test for contaminants.
“We’re finding pesticides not just on the leaves, but also on the buds,” he says. “Studies have shown pesticides on material show up at detectable levels when it’s smoked.” If any of this harvest ends up in a medical dispensary, that means it could end up in the lungs of people who are already immunocompromised from AIDS or cancer. There hasn’t been any formal research in California yet, but studies and investigations in Colorado and Oregon have found pesticides on marijuana in legal dispensaries, even products that were supposedly certified pesticide-free. Concentrates had 5-10 times more than flowers.
Higher up the hillside, at the edge of the burn scar, is what looks like a sprawling homeless encampment in the trees. Folding camp chairs, a pile of sneakers, and at least 20 cans of athlete’s foot spray are scattered around a sleeping platform reinforced with logs. Four rolls of unused irrigation pipe as big as truck tires lie near a deep drift of food cans that smells like death. Each roll is a thousand feet long and retails for $250. “All of this was trucked in on someone’s back,” Gabriel says. “This is not done on a whim. This takes organization and capital.”
Just below the campsite are three natural springs, or at least what’s left of them. When Gabriel was doing owl surveys here ten years ago, the trickling springs fed a thriving wetland of willows and alders. To give the pot plants a reliable, controllable source of water, the growers dug out the springs into pools the size of hot tubs, covered with sticks and tarps to hide them from the air. The wetland is virtually gone.
A marijuana plant needs anywhere from six to nine gallons of water a day. Multiply that by thousands of plants over a 150-day growing season, times hundreds if not thousands of grow sites, in one of the thirstiest states in the country, and you have a serious problem. A study by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife estimated that trespass marijuana grows suck up about 300 million gallons per square mile, roughly the same as almonds. Some grows in Humboldt County have literally sucked creeks dry, leaving salmon and steelhead to flop and die in puddles.
Gabriel calculates this site alone could have used enough water in a single season to fill seven Olympic pools. Near one of the springs, an empty jar of ibuprofen lies on the ground. This is where they one of the growers was caught: fleeing a K9 dog, he took a bad jump and broke his leg. “I gave him some pills—he appreciated that,” Gabriel says. His companion escaped by running down the valley to a road, evading two K9 dogs in pursuit. Not all of Gabriel’s interactions with growers are so friendly: he once had to help tackle a grower who had thrown off a law enforcement officer twice his size.
To keep growers from returning and replanting the site, it will have to be remediated, returned to something like it was before it was planted. By Gabriel’s calculations that would mean removing around 20,000 feet of irrigation pipe and hauling out all the trash in 50-gallon bags, probably 40 or 50 in all. The springs will have to be rebuilt to function naturally. This site is close enough to a road that all the crap can be hauled out on foot, but remote sites require helicopters.
Remediation takes money and manpower, both of which—just as they are on the law enforcement end—are scarce to nonexistent. Out of the roughly 80 grow sites Gabriel and his team have worked on since 2014, they have been able to remediate 29 so far. “We’d like to get that to a hundred percent, but there’s just no money for it,” he says. “Right now it’s all soft money, grants through our NGO, volunteers helping. I’m on the cusp of putting up a GoFundMe site. Next I’ll try selling cookies.”
He nudges a grimy digital scale with his boot. “How do you clean up hundreds of sites?” he says. “That’s a lot of bake sales.”
Plunging prices for black market marijuana in California—from over $3,000 a pound a decade ago to roughly $1,500 today—have led to larger and larger trespass grows. The largest ones are broken up into dozens of smaller subplots, making it less likely every plot will be busted but also spreading out the environmental impact as well. “It used to be a single gaping wound like bullet hole,” Gabriel says. “Now it’s a shotgun.”
Case in point: this September the IERC team surveyed two grow complexes in Lassen National Forest. Together they covered a square mile, the largest they have ever seen in the state. There were 30 camps in all, each with its own cache of rodenticide, and over 40 miles of irrigation pipe that sucked up 71,000 gallons of spring water a day.
They also found the carcasses of a bear and grey fox. Test results are still pending, but they’re reasonably sure the fox, at least, is full of poison. Right next to it was the carcass of a turkey vulture; by all appearances it took a bite or two and dropped dead. As he was taking samples, Gabriel watched flies land on the fox and die in seconds. “That night was the longest shower I ever took,” he says.
Twenty years after giving the thumbs up to medicinal marijuana, Californians voted in November to become one of the TK states where anyone over 21 can buy pot legally. By some estimates, Proposition 64 could double the state marijuana market to $6.6 billion by 2020. But as long as the plant is still illegal in other states, the demand that fuels trespass grows will still be there, Higley says. “These guys aren’t growing for the legal recreational market or medical dispensaries—they’re growing to exploit a black market somewhere.”
Gabriel knows he’s fighting the good fight. He also knows he can’t keep going like this forever. Almost all his working hours are eaten up by “drug stuff” now. The raids, the long field days of surveys and remediation, the endless presentations and interviews: it’s rewarding but draining, too.
He’d like to train other researchers and law enforcement officers to identify and remove chemical threats at grow sites. If enough people learn to do what he does, then he can step aside and become just another researcher again. “But if I stopped right now, it would be gone,” he says.
The idea of moving somewhere comes up a lot at dinner. The “green rush” is making Humboldt County a crazy place, with real estate through the roof and violence on the rise. Gabriel’s mother is from Michoacan, and a lot of what he’s seeing in California is starting to sound like stories he hears from south of the border.
“I worry about raising a family here,” he says. “You do it for your kid, but you have to be there for your kid.”