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102,000 plants destroyed in Sonoma County, twice previous record Barely halfway into their annual crackdown on marijuana production, Sonoma County drug agents already have seized a record 102,000 plants.
That's up from 28,000 for all of last year and more than twice the previous high, the Sheriff's Department said.
The spike mirrors an upswing around the state attributed in part to larger gardens, which, authorities say is a reflection of increased investments by Mexican drug cartels.
"Somebody's planting a lot of marijuana out there, and it's not local people just growing it for personal use," said Michael Johnson, commander of the state's Campaign Against Marijuana Planting, or CAMP. "These people are growing to make a profit. A big profit."
CAMP seizures have hit 925,000 plants around the state, smashing 2004's record 621,315. At an estimated street value of about $4,000 a pound, authorities say they have confiscated $3.7 billion worth of marijuana.
"Last year, the average raid netted about 3,500 plants," Justice Department spokeswoman Robin Schwanke said. "This year, the average raid is netting about 6,500 plants, so you can kind of already see a huge difference."
About half of Sonoma County's seizures came from two sophisticated pot farms found in the Austin Creek State Recreation Area in July.
One garden yielded 23,650 plants; a second, about 21,000, said Sheriff's Sgt. Chris Bertoli, who heads the county's narcotics task force.
Mendocino County's Marijuana Eradication Team said its seizures had topped 100,000 plants, while Lake County agents have pulled 125,992 plants, up from a record 84,500 last year, Chief Sheriff's Deputy Russ Perdock said.
In Napa County, seizures have reached 88,000, said Gary Pitkin, commander of the Special Investigations Bureau.
"We've darn near tripled our previous record, which was in 2002, and in '02 the record was at roughly 28,000 plants," Pitkin said.
Around the region, the growth patterns are similar: lots of clandestine gardens near vineyards, where irrigation systems often are illicitly tapped, and many on public lands, often planted in illegally clear-cut areas and irrigated from dammed and diverted streams.
The gardens are increasingly sophisticated and the pot more potent, officials said.
Marijuana that in the past might have had 8 percent THP, the psychoactive ingredient, now might contain 34 percent.
"It's crazy," said Johnson, the CAMP chief.
State and federal drug officials have said for several years that Mexican drug trafficking organizations are behind the growth in pot production. They say their statements are based in part on intelligence not made public.
Other evidence includes the capital needed to fund the cultivation of 20,000-plant gardens, often protected by security systems, as well as the organizational infrastructure needed to process, distribute and market 20,000 pounds of harvested pot, authorities said.
A new investigative team connected to CAMP is working full time on the link to Mexican traffickers, collecting and sifting through intelligence already obtained, Johnson said. A second unit is being formed.
Authorities said rising seizures also reflect improved coordination and focus on eradication efforts.
But there's something else: Wheras growers in the 1980s and 1990s had learned to cultivate small plots of perhaps 50 plants well-camouflaged by manzanita and chemise, the trend now is multiple, huge gardens, planted undisguised but in remote locations, Bertoli and others said.
Losing some to law enforcement raids is just the cost of doing business, Johnson said.
"They're overwhelming us with numbers," Sonoma County Sheriff's Lt. Roger Rude said. "There appears to be a shotgun approach with the anticipation that there's going to be a calculated loss."