Commando squad cracks down on California pot farmers – archive, 24 July 1985

white lighthouse on shore beside body of water

The camp’s stars and stripes snaps in the wind from the rotor blades as weary men in camouflaged uniforms jump from the helicopters, sweating under flak jackets in 100-degree heat.

They park their guns and commando knives, and trudge off to big khaki “chow” tents as the flames crackle in a perimeter crater.

It is the end of another day’s “search and destroy” raid in the remote, densely forested hills of what command headquarters has codenamed the “emerald triangle” in north-east California. Despite the obvious comparisons with military techniques in Vietnam over a decade ago, this paramilitary operation is against civilian growers of cannabis.

They used to call it the “happy harvest,” but that was a decade ago when the hippies went “back to the soil” to farm their favourite plant. Many chose the three northern counties of California, an area now the target of the largest task force in the US: Camp (or Campaign Against Marijuana Planting).

The region has become a battle ground. The hippies have been mostly replaced by commercial growers, a motley community of unemployed loggers, local farmers and businessmen, city professionals seeking an instant fortune, and a few career criminals. All seem to be armed against marauding bands of “patch pirates seeking to steal the hidden harvest of California, the vegetable garden of America.

Cannabis is now the state’s biggest single cash crop: an estimated $2,500 million last year. This is still only about one fifth of the total US production, grown in a zone running from Oregon down to Georgia, and up to Connecticut.

But the densest concentration is the “Emerald Triangle” on the California coast with the formerly poor but now prosperous town of Garberville (pop 1,350) at the centre. Once there were 14 lumber mills here. There are only two now, but business booms. A bank, two motels, and 13 horticulture supply shops have opened and thrive, and the travel agent arranged 450 world trips last year.

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A Mendocino County Sheriff’s officer holds a budding marijuana plant that was seized during a drug raid.

At harvest time in October men in soiled working clothes buy drinks with $100 notes in the bar where stern notices forbid cameras. Nobody, of course, has any doubt where such money comes from, and Camp’s 120 men are resented by the locals. A motel owner who rented them rooms was threatened and staff have been insulted.

Camp’s $2.8 million budget goes mainly on hiring the five – soon to be seven – helicopters and running the command post at an open prison eight miles out of town. Here the atmosphere is unmistakably military.

“There’s no way to cope with a mission like this without using military technique,” says Mike Mollica, a lean and moustachioed state narcotics special agent. He was a marines battalion chief scout in Vietnam and, with his camouflaged field hat, dagger, automatic pistol, and AR-15 (the civilian version of the US army’s M-16) looks as if he is still there.

Facing an elusive armed adversary with intimate knowledge of difficult terrain, he may well feel a sense of déjà vu.

No serious shooting has been directed at Camp patrols this season so far, but teams have been told at a week-long “survival course” to be on guard. The five teams of 15 men each from various police and sheriff’s forces, were also instructed about booby traps.

These also owe their origins to Vietnam and include “punji sticks” – sharpened staves in pits, shotgun shells automatically fired at knee height, branches festooned with fish-hooks, steel nooses, exploding ping-pong balls and even grenades, set off by thin, concealed trip wires around the plots.

The helicopter pilots have to watch for wires strung at tree height. “” said Mike Gray, a former gunship pilot with the US Tenth Cavalry who was shot down twice in Indo-China. “At least these aren’t attached to mines – or I hope they’re not. But the wires can still bring you down.”

Camp teams are flown into a “strike zone” pinpointed earlier by spotter planes looking for the pot plants’ emerald green, contrasting with the more sombre indigenous vegetation.

The patrol surround the plot, arrest anyone there, and then cut down the plants, now only about 5ft tall but later to grow to 15ft. These are stacked in slings under the helicopters, then dumped by the choppers into a huge pit dug at the edge of the camp and burned. The fire may burn for three or more months and in the first week 4,800 plants worth $9 million have gone up in heady smoke.

It was President Nixon who unwittingly created the California crop, now regarded as the world’s finest pot. He persuaded the Mexicans to spray their cannabis with paraquat, a toxin.

This loss led to the development of California’s “sinsemilla” (Spanish for seedless) variety. American ingenuity discovered that if one uproots the male plant, the female puts out richer and larger buds in a vain attempt at fertilisation.

It is the part of the plant which is now favoured by the 30 million Americans who smoke cannabis. Another 200,000 are said to make their living from the drug.

The lobby to legalise it has diminished from its peak in the seventies, partly because of the sinsemilla boom and the rising prices now $2 – 3,000 a lb. It is not surprising that growers ceased to demand legalisation with this kind of money beckoning.

More certain prison sentences and confiscation of property and possessions, as well as camp operations, seem likely, only to dent the crop size.

There is too much at stake in a business which, although illegal, even has a trade Journal, Sinsemilla Tips.

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