The nation's drug czar chopped down marijuana plants growing deep inside the Sequoia National Forest in Tulare County on Tuesday.
John Walters, who holds the Cabinet-level position as director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, came to California to bring attention to a new locally coordinated, but partly federally funded, marijuana eradication program to raid marijuana gardens planted on public lands by Mexican drug cartels.
"We intend to shoot these down," Walters said.
U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott joined Walters in a helicopter ride to a remote location to remove plants, then both spoke at a news conference in Visalia.
Scott said those arrested for growing 1,000 or more marijuana plants on public lands face minimum 10-year terms.
Mandatory minimum sentences "make criminals talk," Walters said approvingly. (Emphasis added)
"Talking criminals is what you need to go after the higher-ups."
Mexican drug cartels are coming to the United States to grow marijuana because of tightened border security, Walters added.
The new program the drug czar came to Tulare County to highlight has been dubbed Locating Organized Cannabis Cultivators Using Saturation Tactics. It involves 14 federal state and local law enforcement agencies, each contributing personnel and equipment, and is coordinated by the Tulare County Sheriff's Department. The department received a $200,000 grant from Office of National Drug Control Policy to find "grow sites" and raid them.
The raids, using helicopters from the Air National Guard and involving about 220 law enforcement agencies, have targeted 63 gardens, the Sheriff's Department said. An additional 20 sites have been identified, but are still to be raided. The operation started in late July and will continue until all have been raided, officials said.
So far, 340,685 plants have been discovered, and 36 people arrested. Most of those arrested for cultivating marijuana on federal lands are Mexican nationals, Scott said.
Walters said public perception that marijuana is harmless is out of date. Marijuana addiction is a major problem for young people today.
"For those of the baby boomer generation who started this stupidity, I want you to know this is not the marijuana of the 1980s," he said. The marijuana being eradicated in national parks "is not something raised by some retired hippie."
August 6, 2008 -- Porterville Recorder (CA)
Nation's Drug Czar Makes Stop In Tulare County To Tout Operation
By Alex K.W. Schultz, The Porterville Recorder
VISALIA -- Last week's drug bust involving a massive marijuana grow site above Porterville is drawing national attention with the arrival today of the nation's drug czar.
Ten media outlets, including CNN and CNBC, converged on the National Guard Armory building in Visalia shortly after noon for a press conference to address the relative success of the joint operation.
John Walters, director of the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy, McGregor Scott, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of California, and Tulare County Sheriff Bill Wittman each spent several minutes answering reporters' questions.
Thursday's drug raid, which involved federal and state agencies, confiscated 26,363 marijuana plants from public lands located in the Blue Ridge area, a Joint Information Center news release said.
Additionally, 7,100 feet -- 1 1/2 miles -- of irrigation tubing, more than 2,000 pounds of garbage and hazardous waste, more than 200 pounds of fertilizer and two gallons of pesticides were removed, authorities report.
"This task force has a sense of passion, a sense of confidence," Scott said, "because we're having success."
The ongoing operation, dubbed Operation LOCCUST (Locating Organized Cannabis Cultivators Using Saturation Tactics), has led to the seizure of about $1.4 billion in marijuana plants and 36 arrests, authorities report.
The suspects were booked on suspicion of crimes including cultivation of marijuana, possession of marijuana for sale, child endangerment, possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony, and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon and conspiracy, authorities report.
"Most of [the 36 felons] are illegal immigrants," Wittman said.
The operation, which began in November, has cumulatively eradicated 340,685 plants -- 138.7 pounds -- and amassed $6,900 in cash, 27 weapons, eight ounces of cocaine, three vehicles and 2.5 pounds of methamphetamines.
More than 245 filled trash bags weighing a combined 14,500 pounds, 26.9 miles of irrigation pipe, 1,824 pounds of fertilizer, 22 pounds of pesticides and 30 gallons of liquid chemicals have been removed from the 83 grow sites across Tulare County, authorities report.
"It's a massive undertaking," Scott said, "because our opponents, those who are growing these gardens, by design choose extremely remote, hard-to-get-to locations."
Walters, the nation's drug czar, said he is proud of what federal, state and local agencies have recently accomplished.
"It's so important for the whole country because [the marijuana] is being shipped across the border," he said, "and it's being used to destabilize the government of Mexico."
John Baker, California Department of Fish and Game assistant chief, said innocent people could be affected by pot growers' actions.
"The amount of fertilizers they're putting on these places, those nitrates can leech into the water and eventually wind up on our water tables," he said.
Baker said 10 acres are affected for every acre used by marijuana growers.
These statistics are good enough reason for officials to continue the raid.
"Our objective is to drive [the growers] out of here," Scott said, "and that's what we're going to do."
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