Pot Wars: Origin
In some instances faces and names have been left out to protect the identities of law enforcement
California, a land synonymous with big trees, big mountains and pot. Here, illegal marijuana grows support an estimated $31 billion industry. Every summer, swat teams sweep forests like it’s their nine to five. They burn crops. Take counts. Make arrests. Repeat.
A wake of destruction from massive marijuana grows run by international drug cartels has left the forest literally bleeding out. Rodenticide poisonings have pushed the Pacific fisher, an animal some call the tree otter, to the brink. Bears, fox, spotted owls have also fallen prey. Just as alarming, these chemicals have found their way into our water supply.
Now science has unlocked a legal toolkit that’s helping law enforcement go after bigger targets. Cartels are getting nervous. In some cases, biologists have become targets. For these researchers, the work is personal.
Science just might be the key to fighting one of the most insidious drug wars on U.S. soil in the last 20 years.
In 2007, the U.S. Forest Service was tasked with doing an assessment of the Pacific fisher’s status. The agency looked at the fisher as the next potential spotted owl, and wished to get ahead of any controversies that could put them in the middle of a battle between conservationists and logging companies. The fur trapping industry had nearly wiped fishers off the map by the early-1900s. Today, they faced threats from fire and the timber industry. Only a few thousand were thought to still live on the West Coast.
A couple years later, biologists tracking a mortality signal from a collared fisher stumbled upon a mystery. Fishers were turning up dead, but nothing looked wrong. “They found this male fisher, collared, looking perfectly healthy, you know no damage, no nothing, other than he was just laying dead on the forest floor,” says Craig Thompson, a biologist with the U.S. Forest Service.
They sent the fisher for necropsy to a young Ph.D candidate at UC Davis named Mourad Gabriel, and what he discovered left researchers stunned. The fisher had died from rodenticide poisoning. “When you do a necropsy on a fisher that’s died of rodenticide poisoning, there’s no question about what it is,” says Thompson. “When you look inside, it’s a mess.”
Acute rodenticide poisoning causes cells and vessel walls to leak. Organs open up, and the animal literally drowns in its own blood. Even small cuts can turn into mortal wounds. There’s at least one known instance of a great horned owl bleeding out from a cut on its toe, says Thompson.
When Gabriel went back to look at an archive of liver samples collected from other fisher mortalities, he found that almost all of them, about 85 percent, had been exposed to the poison. “That was kind of the sky falling moment,” says Thompson.
But where was it coming from? They were in the middle of the forest, far from farms and communities where they might be at risk.
Biologists working in California forests know to keep an eye out for pot grows. Since 2000, illegal trespass grows on public land -- including national parks, national forest and tribal lands -- have exploded. Estimates put the industry’s worth at around $31 billion, that’s roughly equal to California’s top seven agricultural crops combined. Pot is bigger than cattle, bigger than almonds, bigger than dairy, strawberries, lettuce. It leaves corn in the dust.
When biologists spoke with law enforcement officers and began describing the kinds of chemicals they were dealing with, law enforcement responded that they found the same chemicals at grow sites. Researchers compared fisher deaths from rodenticide to locations of known grows, and came up with a near perfect match.
The finding knocked loose a cascade of environmental impacts that would send Gabriel, Thompson and a small cohort of scientists on an odyssey to document the devastation wrought by the marijuana industry.
For the most part, these aren’t your mom-and-pop grows. Marijuana in California forests are often large-scale, gun carrying, cartel-driven operations. In a country where the greatest concern for environmental science usually involves funding or weather conditions, this endeavor put a new meaning to the idea of conducting science.
When Gabriel published a paper on the rodenticide poisoning in 2012, people came to his home and poisoned his dog. “Have I ever thought about quitting? Yes,” he says. “But you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. Who’s going to do it at some point?”
Gabriel believes firmly in the power of numbers. With more people working on it, it becomes harder for any one person to become a target, he says. On this trip out to the grows there are 16 people from no fewer than four institutions and government agencies heading into the field.
There are a few hard and fast rules when going out to document a grow. First, leave at home anything that could identify you. That means the obvious, but also extends to cell phones or any obsessive-compulsive labeling tendencies. Don’t wander off into the forest. Don’t touch any unlabeled containers, especially if it’s a Gatorade bottle filled with pink stuff. Lastly, stay behind the guys with guns.
Even then, you never quite know what you’re getting into.
Location: Plumas National Forest somewhere outside Quincy, Cali.
Gabriel rips off a tarp that had been hiding a mixing pond, a small water reservoir used to mix pesticides and fertilizers. In the middle of giving directions to two of his research team, the sound of static, then a voice comes over his radio. While following the source line (the main irrigation tube), the law enforcement guys found something. It looks to be some kind of burial. Worse, it stinks.
Gabriel heads over to investigate.
This time the victim was a black bear. Gabriel removes the head to swab for toxins, then puts it back. No need to disturb the rest.
While law enforcement has yet to find a body, they suspect there are shallow graves throughout the forests. There’s plenty of opportunity for injury or getting sick, says one law enforcement officer. Growers don’t exactly get good medical care.
In these parts, the color pink is a bad sign.
Before heading into the field, Gabriel had warned against touching anything unlabeled, especially if it involved a bottle containing pink liquid. Because what looks like Pepto-Bismol in a Gatorade bottle -- the growers have a penchant for Gatorade -- is more likely a deadly pesticide neurotoxin, called carbofuran.
At the very first grow, one of the team sends out an alarm. They’ve found a bottle wrapped in a bag, hanging from a tree a little downslope from the main camp. Biologist Greta Wengert, Gabriel’s wife and the Associate Director of the Integral Ecology Research Center, dons a face mask, blue latex gloves followed by thick black rubber ones and safety goggles. She tells everyone to keep a safe distance before opening the bottle.
One of these bottles exploded in Gabriel’s face once. Left out in the sun, carbofuran mixed with water begins to pressurize and gasify. They are like chemical bombs waiting to go off. “When you find a water bottle in a plastic bag, you’re like, ugh, that’s not good,” says Gabriel.
One day while opening a suspicious container in a grow, the bottle went boom.
According to ToxNet, the symptoms of exposure to carbofuran in people, include headache, nausea, dizziness, blurred vision, convulsions, coma, and death by asphyxiation. Milder impacts involve short-term memory loss, persistent fatigue and blurred vision.
Gabriel’s mask saved him that day. But both Thompson and Gabriel worry that it’s only a matter of time before a hiker or a kid picks up the wrong thing.
Everything grows quiet as Wengert opens the bottle, like everyone is holding their breath. The moment thankfully proves anti-climactic. She unscrews the top, swabs a sample and packages up the offending material in bags and buckets and liberal amounts of bright red tape.
While the team has to wait for lab results to officially call this what it is, Wengert is almost certain she’s bagged the bad stuff, carbofuran.
Growers use carbofuran on the land, in baited traps and spray it directly onto the marijuana. There’s more than a good chance it’s on the pot going to consumers, say Thompson and Gabriel. Several recent investigative studies and raids in Colorado have shown that even marijuana coming from “legal” grows have tested positive for pesticides.
At one site in Plumas National Forest, the team finds a tupperware container with remnants of goop that smells like bacon. Pink flakes litter the ground, and not more than 100 yards away, a research tech discovers the still fresh body of a grey fox.
It’s hard not to wonder whether the fox would still be alive if the site had been cleaned up when law enforcement raided it a month earlier. The thing is, there are too many grows and not enough people. For every site busted, there are probably five or six still out there, says Gabriel. Sometimes the growers come back.
In any case, reclamation of a single site is a logistically complicated and time-consuming effort. A four day operation with 16 people, involving law enforcement, science teams and helicopters, cleans up four sites. By the end of this backbreaking work, there’s still at least 20 other known sites in this one area of Plumas National Forest. There are easily thousands of sites just in California.
The team finds suspected carbofuran at every grow. After processing another bottle, Gabriel repeats his name, age, date and location. He will repeat this every 10 minutes for 40 minutes to make sure he’s not showing signs of exposure. Gabriel has developed a cough and looks sweaty as though from a fever, not exertion. Every time Gabriel processes a sample it seems to take an emotional toll.
Over the course of three days, Gabriel and his team find the bodies of three black bears, one grey fox, and several birds and rodents. They remove 33 pounds of rodenticide and four bottles of suspected carbofuran.
So far the animal most obviously affected remains the Pacific fisher. Fishers can sustain about a ten percent additional mortality pressure before their populations can’t handle the loss, says Thompson. A new study Gabriel released in November of 2015 found that acute poisoning from marijuana grows is now responsible for 13 percent of fisher deaths. The Pacific fisher could become the first species listed under the Endangered Species Act because of pot.
While approaching a creek in High Sierra National Forest, Thompson wields what looks like a tea strainer made for a giant. Thompson hops over moss covered rocks and through bundles of dead branches like he’s on a stroll in the park.
There’s this phrase scientists like to use called downstream effects. By definition, it means either something that happens later on in a process, or a position farther along in a stream or river. In cases of pesticide and fertilizer use in trespass grows, this definition holds true in more ways than one.
Researchers have begun setting out filters to find out what goes into water from the grows. They think chemicals are leaching into streams. It’s easy to see why, piles of fertilizer remain stacked next to a reservoir at one of the Plumas sites, beads of it lie scattered across the forest floor, ideal attractants for birds. The minimum amount of fertilizer use found at the four Plumas sites equal almost 4,000 pounds.
There’s question as to whether this could have devastating impacts not only to wildlife, or a favored fishing spot, but could migrate downstream into the drinking supply.
The amount of water affected by grows is nothing short of staggering, made even more so in a time of drought. A recent study by Scott Bauer, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, calculated that trespass marijuana grows suck up about 430 million liters per square kilometer, about the same need as for almonds.
The four grows Gabriel’s team visited in Plumas National Forest in September used enough tubing for about 16 million gallons of water per growing season. That’s roughly the equivalent of 25 olympic-sized swimming pools drained, treated with chemicals and redistributed into the forest.
In some cases, grows have sucked streams dry.
Thompson finds his location and drops the “tea strainer” into the creek. Inside this contraption rests a polygon-shaped framework of water filters, called POCIS membranes. Here, the filters will sit, sampling the streamflow for the next month and a half.
So far the picture doesn’t look pretty. “It’s crazy, the stuff you find in the water,” says Michael Filigenzi, a toxicologist at UC Davis. He tests the majority of the water and animal samples sent to the lab.
Reclaimed sites are still a potential hazard, Gabriel says. “Even though we clean up these sites, the first pulse of water, because these are historical sites, the water is just blazing hot for a whole bunch of pesticides.”
“I think people are unwittingly close to grows all the time,” says Thompson. He should know. It happened to him. Law enforcement raided two big grows inside the Lewis Creek Wild and Scenic Area, a mere stone’s throw from Yosemite National Park. They were loaded with banned chemicals. Until then, Thompson loved taking his family there. “My kids played in those streams,” he says. “That definitely took me out of the realm of objective scientist.”
The hazards have already proven to be very real. One member of the reclamation team fell into a partially-filled reservoir while cleaning up a grow, says Gabriel. They had to medivac him out. He went into a coma. He survived the incident, but will be on a pacemaker for the rest of his life, his law enforcement co-workers say. They describe him as one of the fittest guys on the team.
Despite the distance between study areas, it’s clear there’s a camaraderie between teams working in the Emerald Triangle and the High Sierras. They often travel across the state to work together. In the field, Gabriel exchanges fist bumps and jokes with guys on the law enforcement team. While the police still carry guns, they also pack in plastic bags and rolls of duct tape with a mission to not just bust grows, but clean them up.
There are far too many grows and few too many resources to solve the trespass marijuana problem, but the data that researchers are bringing back from the field has opened new legal toolkits. Science opens access to the Endangered Species and Clean Water Acts. This enables law enforcement to go after international assets, bigger players, not stopping at growers who are mostly illegal immigrants and easily replaceable.
Gabriel and Thompson hesitate to state that legalization could be a solution. In Colorado, illegal grows continue to thrive despite legalization, in some part because supply can’t meet demand. “The solution one way or another has to come from the voting public,” Thompson says. “We joke about organic pot certification.”
In fact, there are groups attempting to establish a framework for just such a certification. A group called Clean Green Certified uses USDA-based organic standards to certify marijuana from legal dispensaries as unofficially “organic.” Unofficial because as long as marijuana remains federally illegal, it cannot be certified as such.
It’s safe to say that the Pacific fisher, with it’s bear-like face and long fluffy body, has no clue of the role it’s played in bringing to light the story of its forests. That because of efforts to understand its life, an unlikely partnership has formed between environmental science and law enforcement.
During a chilly dawn this past September, amid bouts of drizzle and sunshine in Yosemite National Park, Pacific fishers passed a more promising milestone. Four kits, rescued earlier in the summer after their mothers had been killed, were released back in the national park. Their reintroduction marks a new beginning for Pacific fishers which had been cut off from the northern side of the park for decades. Hopefully, the first of more reintroductions, says Thompson.
While even Yosemite is not completely free of marijuana’s impacts, the park is one of the safer havens for the fisher. The kits emerge from their nest boxes, sniff the air and rather than run, begin to play.
This project was funded through a grant from the Fund for Environmental Journalism.