'Corporations' Bring Pot to Parks

Detective Eric Anderson has been in on plenty of busts of marijuana-growing operations in Klickitat County, Wash., but none of them prepared him for what he, along with state and federal agents, found in a remote ravine near the White Salmon River.

It wasn't just the size of the operation -- some 6,000 plants on three separate plots within a 2-square-mile area -- but that the people who worked there had built shacks where they slept and cooked, had lugged in workout equipment and built an elaborate, sophisticated irrigation and misting system to keep the plants growing and blossoming.

"It was really well-established," Anderson said. "It was almost like a miniature Gilligan's Island. They took the time to make a comfortable, livable site. I was highly impressed with everything from the amount of labor to the engineering in that water system that was put in."

The massive operation that agents found in the forest on state land in Klickitat County, producing a crop estimated to have a street value of as much as $9 million, is part of a trend that law enforcement officials from Washington to South Carolina have seen growing over the last half dozen years.

The overall amount of marijuana under cultivation that is seized each year has been holding steady, according to various measures, but how it is being found has undergone a radical change.

They describe it as a turn to a more corporate approach to growing marijuana in the United States, which until recently had mostly been pursued by individuals who tended their plants themselves in their basements, barns, closets or back yards.

These corporate growers likely never go near the plants, which law enforcement officials say are often tended by immigrants who live on-site to keep out animals that might do damage to the plants or hunters or hikers who might steal the harvest or report back to authorities.

The plantation in Klickitat County was discovered by police flying over the area searching for patches of the distinctive green of marijuana leaves, but once it was identified, drug enforcement agents had to decide how to proceed. The garden they saw from the air was in a ravine, and Anderson said when he was flown over it, even when it was pointed out it was hard to see.

"It was all we could do to hike in after we spotted it from the air," he added.

By the time police had gotten there, everybody working the gardens was gone.

Though there have been few arrests of people who were working in the gardens in any of the seizures, police say they believe that in many cases the financing and organization for the operations is coming from Mexico, with drug lords who have trafficked in marijuana for years deciding it is more profitable to move their growing operations rather than continuing to try to smuggle pot into the United States.

This belief is based in part on evidence found at the various large-scale pot farms that have been found in several states across the country -- though most of the so-called corporate sites have been found in eastern California, in remote areas of the national parks there.

In Tulare County, Calif., more than 18,000 plants, with an estimated street value of $72 million, were seized in late August in several gardens in remote areas of Sequoia National Park, and in September county and state police made four more seizures of roughly 4,000 plants each.

"We're having a huge marijuana year," Tulare County County Sheriff's Department Lt. Donna Perry said.

Throwing a Bone to Police

Further south in California, similar size seizures have been made in the remote areas of San Bernardino and Riverside counties, which like Tulare County range into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains.

That stretch of Sierra foothills, some 200 miles north to south and 40 miles wide, has become one of the prime areas for operation by these large-scale pot planting operations, law enforcement officials say.

That in itself is a major change. Until recently, the state's main pot growing areas were in Marin County and Northern California, where "baby boomers either planted on their own land or land they were familiar with because they'd lived up there for years," said Mike Van Winkle, a spokesman with the California Department of Justice's Campaign Against Marijuana Planting, which has 75 officers and provides local police with coordination and aircraft to go after the largest fields in remote areas.

Those baby boomer growers rarely planted more than 300 or 400 plants and usually had gardens of just a few dozen, Van Winkle said.

This new breed of grower will plant as many as 15 or 20 gardens, with several of 1,000 or 2,000 plants in less secure, less remote areas — throwing a bone to law enforcement in the hope that they won't sniff around further and find the primary fields, he said.

Growth Industry

Another large-scale operation that was discovered this year was in South Carolina's Lancaster County, where 6,000 plants -- all 6 feet to 8 feet tall -- were seized from a densely wooded area. Unlike most of the pot gardens found in the West, the one in South Carolina was on private property, though police said the landowner knew nothing about the operation.

Like the gardens in the West, though, there was a semi-permanent camp set up for the workers who tended the crop, and Lancaster County officials described it as an elaborate operation that would have produced $13.6 million worth of marijuana, had the pot ever made it to the streets.

Also in Washington, south of Walla Walla, 6,500 plants were seized earlier this year under similar circumstances -- a remote area, crude but well-established camp and elaborate irrigation.

There are no hard numbers for how much marijuana is grown in the United States, though some estimates put it as high as 35 percent of all the pot sold in America. Law enforcement officials say they cannot come up with any kind of firm figure because all they have to go on is the amount they seize from growing operations they find.

"There are too many clandestine operations going on in homes, warehouses, and out in the forests, so we can't quantify that," DEA spokesman Thomas Hinojosa said. "You can't tell how many fish are in a pond by how many fish you catch."

There is also no clear accounting of how much marijuana is seized each year, because so many different agencies are involved, and local and state law enforcement do not necessarily report all of their hauls to the DEA, he said.

The DEA's nationwide figures for marijuana seizures from growing operations have remained virtually steady over the past three years, averaging around 2.7 million pounds a year. Hinojosa said the DEA does not calculate any monetary amount on the seizures it is involved in because the street value of marijuana varies greatly from city to city and depending on how potent the pot is.

In California, the CAMP effort, which has been in existence since 1983, expects the seizures it has been involved in this year to total more than 300,000 plants worth more than a billion dollars, but even that does not represent the total number of plants taken in the state, because it does include seizures made by county and local police working on their own.

Based on formulas that look at changes in street and wholesale prices for marijuana, it is estimated that law enforcement is getting 10 percent of the pot that is grown in the country.

'Great Botanical Minds'

According to officials in California, the marijuana they've been finding is high grade.

"There are some great botanical minds that have put their best efforts out to produce the best marijuana plants," Van Winkle said.

The buds on many of the plants that they find are "the size of a football, and not just one per plant -- there's six to eight," Van Winkle said. "When all is said and dried, any plant that grows to maturity, they're getting two to three pounds of bud. Most of the time, when they're processing it they'll cut off the bud, cut down the plant and let it rot."

With a pound of marijuana bringing in roughly $4,000 for the grower, the business has become extremely profitable, he said.

"From a garden that brings in $1 million, I can't find $250,000 in overhead," he said.

There is already an immigrant labor pool to draw on in California, Van Winkle said, adding that a man would make much more for tending a marijuana field than he would for any other labor or farm work.

The idea of growing pot inside the United States would have to be attractive to foreign drug lords, even with the risk, he said, because it eliminates the need to try to get the product across the border.

"They're already in California," he said. "They can get in a car and go pretty much anywhere with 100 pounds of pot in the trunk without dogs sniffing around for it."

'Direction From Mexico'

In Klickitat, Anderson said that he had learned about the large-scale operations from a "marijuana school" — a DEA-sponsored class on outdoor marijuana eradication, when local police were briefed on what to look for and theories about how the operations work.

DEA officials declined to characterize for ABCNEWS.com who is believed to be behind most of the marijuana grown in the United States, but Anderson said that federal law enforcement agents have told him that "Mexican nationals are responsible for a lot of the larger grows."

"With a grow this size, who knows where it could be financed from, where it was planned," Anderson said.

"The direction comes from Mexico," Van Winkle said.

At the three sites near the White Salmon River police found journals recording the progress of the plants written in Spanish, canned foods from Mexico and tortilla presses, he said.

They also found free weights, an abdominal workout machine, ammunition, indications that they had been taking target practice, and the remains of animals they had poached for food -- and all of it in an area "so remote, the only way you could have spotted it was from the air," he said.