Fighting the dark side of cannabis

Cartels are illegally growing cannabis on America’s public lands; meet the game wardens fighting them

Portrait of a middle-aged bearded soldier in a Woodland military uniform and cap, with headphones on his head holding a rifle.

When John Nores became a fish and game warden in California, he anticipated spending his working days catching poachers, checking fishing licenses, and investigating hunting accidents. 

Instead, his career would be defined by gunfights with cartel marijuana growers, navigating booby-trapped wildernesses, arresting professional criminals, and cleaning up their toxic, highly-polluted grow operations. 

Recalling one of his first engagements with cartel growers, Nores says his entire life changed in an instant. 

“There were a lot of heavily armed cartel gunmen in battle-dress uniform, AK-47s, sawed-off shotguns, pistols, and their belts, patron saint monikers—you know, all the paraphernalia,” he says. “They had fortified positions and they were lying in wait.” 

As Nores and his tactically-trained game warden team approached, a gunshot rang out of the woods and his partner dropped to the ground beside him, shot through both legs. Nores spent the rest of that day exchanging fire and trying to keep his friend from bleeding out. 

“I realized that there was nothing more important in my career than to see this problem exposed and stopped at every level possible for the sake of our public lands,” he says. 

Cartel growers growing on public land is a widespread problem, one that plagues California, where over 80 percent of the nation’s illegally grown cannabis comes from. But it’s a problem, Nores says, that also exists right here in our backyard in Colorado. Anywhere there’s open, remote, public space, chances are there’s a cartel grow operation there, he says. And they’re absolutely wreaking havoc on the environment. 

“These guys are the biggest wildlife destroyers and water polluters we have ever seen,” Nores says. “It is a form of eco-terrorism. And it’s affecting our wildlife and our wetlands and waterways at their most sensitive spots.”

As Nores explains, these cartel grow operations aren’t just posing a physical threat to hikers, hunters, bikers, or general outdoor enthusiasts. They’re also littering, throwing garbage all over the place, leaving pipes, hoses, bottles, bags, and other waste everywhere; they’re illegally diverting water from creeks, streams, and rivers; they’re using illegal traps to kill and poach animals that get too close to their bud; and worst of all, he says, they’re using industrial concentrate pesticides that are so toxic they’ve been banned in the U.S. by the EPA for over 20 years.

“[Metamidofos] is a highly toxic carcinogen and a nerve agent that kills anything it comes in contact with, including humans if we’re not properly protected,” Nores says. Just a teaspoon could kill a 500-pound black bear, or leave miles of a creek or stream completely dead and lifeless, he says. “These pristine lands in America [are] being used as a dumping ground and as an expendable resource for black market profits within America.” 

Nores helped found and train California Fish and Wildlife’s Marijuana Enforcement Division (MED), which exclusively works to weed out and reclaim these illicit grow operations to preserve the environment of California’s public lands.

Nores explains that once the MED has secured a grow from any human threats, they then assess the site to find out how polluted and contaminated it is and start clearing it up. They remove the garbage, cover the traps, pull down the barbed wire, demolish any structures, uproot the marijuana plants, and generally try to restore the environment and the waterways to their natural states. 

It’s a task that can take an entire day, or several weeks. “It just depends on the extent of the problem, how big the grow area is and how taxed on resources we are.”

Nores calls this “the dirty part” of the job—but asserts that the reclamation is undoubtedly the most important aspect of what they do. 

“It’s something we pride ourselves on,” he says. 

While this issue is rampant in California (where they estimate between 3,000-6,000 clandestine cartel grow operations to be in operation on public lands), Nores says that it’s absolutely happening in other states as well. Cartel grow operations have been busted on public lands in New Mexico, Arizona, Oklahoma, Michigan, Tennessee, Wisconsin, and, of course, here in Colorado. 

“The ones that happen in Colorado are going to be heavily impactful because they’re going to be happening at higher elevations,” he explains, “where the environment is most sensitive, threatened, and where endangered species run at their highest numbers.”

The best way to fight them is by educating the public, he says. 

Now retired from the MED, education is Nores main mission these days. He travels on a speaking circuit, addressing cannabis cultivator conventions, law enforcement branches, leading training seminars and writing books like Hidden War and War in the Woods about his experiences. His mission is to spread the word and to make people everywhere aware of the threat that these illicit grows pose to our pristine wildernesses–places that belong to all of us. 

“It taints the legitimate cannabis industry . . . I call this the dark side of cannabis,” he says. “And as long as there’s a black market demand for cannabis, we’re never going to completely eradicate it.”