Illegal grows go private

Cartel grow operations shift to a new frontier

Silhouette of a man on a cannabis plantation in sunlight

As much as 90% of black market cannabis sold in the U.S. is grown domestically by criminal enterprises, according to Lt. John Nores, a retired fish and wildlife warden with the State of California. 

It’s why Nores co-founded the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Marijuana Enforcement Team (MET), a first-of-its-kind tactical operations group focused solely on hunting down and breaking up illegal cartel grow operations on public lands. As a game warden, Nores witnessed firsthand the threat these grow ops pose to people recreating outdoors and their devastating environmental impacts. And he’s watched as this problem spread from one state to another. 

In 2019, Nores wrote Hidden War, a book about his experience with this issue. He says a lot has changed since then. 

Where once 90% of the cannabis sold on America’s black market was grown on public land — in our national and state parks and forests, on BLM land, monuments, etc. — “there’s also a big private land element now,” Nores says. “We also have Chinese cartels involved now, as well as the Mexican cartels.”

He estimates that 70-75% of black market cannabis is grown on private land. 

Nores describes “grow bosses” from overseas who buy large swaths of rural land and build larger and better-resourced grow operations. They generally aren’t great neighbors to have around, he says. 

“We’ve literally had both Mexican and Asian cartel groups going to ranchers’ fences in bulletproof vests with semi-automatic assault rifles, rolling in hot in a truck and saying, ‘We’re your neighbor now and this is what’s going down. Don’t make a problem.’”

Illegal grow operations on public land — usually operated by armed individuals — pose serious threats to outdoor recreationists like hunters, anglers, backpackers and hikers. Nores says he’s even seen them booby-trapped with Vietnam-era punji pits: holes in which sharp sticks are positioned to prevent someone from extracting themselves without sustaining serious injury. 

“It goes beyond, ‘What is the hiker going to find? Or the hunter or angler? Now it’s, ‘What are they going to find just hiking through a rural neighborhood?’” Nores says. “In NorCal, they’re hearing gunshots. They’re dealing with vicious dogs on illegal grows. [Local] kids playing in the forest is just a no-go anymore.”

They also can be chemically toxic sites. The pesticides used on these grows are often carbofuran-based and illegal in the U.S. Many are neurotoxic, Nores explains. 

Like those on public land, the illegal grows on private property are diverting water. Only now, they’re tapping into much larger water resources used by ranchers and farmers to support their livelihoods. Garbage, human waste and illegal poaching are common as well. 

From a purely legal standpoint, groups like California’s MET need probable cause and search warrants to enter private property. These operations are much harder to execute raids on than those on public lands, he says. 

This isn’t isolated to California. Nores says Maine, Michigan, Oregon and Oklahoma have experienced a proliferation of illegal private-property grows. There have been numerous Colorado operations busted on both public and private land in recent years. 

A lot of factors are contributing to this issue, according to Nores. In California, they reduced the penalty for growing without a license to a misdemeanor. He believes that has greatly encouraged more illegal growing because the consequences are negligible for those involved. 

Nores would like to see cannabis regulated federally, just like the alcohol and tobacco industries. Without that, he says, the demand for black-market cannabis will persist. 

“I just testified in Congress last October, talking about these issues,” Nores says. “The problem has escalated for anybody — from an outdoor enthusiast standpoint to an environmentalist standpoint — and Congress is aware of it now.” 


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