Cmdr. Marc Alcantara of the San Mateo County Narcotics Task Force showed a visitor photographs of marijuana bales being hoisted by helicopters onto pickup trucks. This year, task force deputies removed 5,070 plants worth $1.5 million from deep in the county’s Skyline Ridge Open Space Preserve just south of San Francisco.
Rangers, hikers and ranchers had found the operation and called in the authorities, Alcantara said. The pot growers were tapping mountain springs to feed irrigation lines linked to “remarkably well-kept” plants. By the time deputies arrived, all that was left were the plants, food, hammocks, sleeping bags and a .22-caliber rifle.
“This is something we encounter every year,” he said. “The difference is we had air resources from the state.”
The bushy weeds are out there every season. The biggest variable regarding how much is detected is what kind of federal and state funding is directed to their eradication.
This growing season, Alcantara’s task force removed some 13,404 plants from Peninsula woodlands, up more than 400 percent from the prior year.
Massive amounts of marijuana are harvested on public lands in California, from the Peninsula’s San Francisco watershed to various state parks and national forests around California. And no one can say how many acres are affected.
National Guard estimates run as high as 1 million acres of national forest, said Sylvia Longmire, author of the 2011 book “Cartel.” Yet the RAND Corp., an independent think tank, says that it may take as little as 4,400 acres of farmland to meet annual U.S. demand for marijuana, based on their estimates of total consumption.
Whatever the amount, these forest growing operations do quite a bit of environmental damage. Operation Full Court Press, a multiagency sweep of Mendocino National Forest this fall, removed 26 tons of trash, 40 miles of irrigation pipe and 260 pounds of pesticide and rodenticide.
“It’s really depressing,” Longmire said. “The environmental damage is devastating.”
But barring the funds to deploy a small army, the growers will probably be back bigger than ever next year. For instance, federal and state budget cuts have all but ended future operations of the federal Campaign Against Marijuana Planting.
“People are in shock,” Longmire said. “They have measly budgets for dealing with this.”
But even as such outdoor growing operations continue largely unchecked, the indoor growing industry is now believed to out-compete forest farmers and even cross-border drug trafficking organizations for most California cannabis customers.
High-quality medical marijuana grown indoors and locally now dominates the shelves of Bay Area cannabis dispensaries, according to operators, growers and patient groups. Most dispensary operators say they carry zero, or very little, outdoor-grown product — mostly because patients prefer the look, smell, taste and effects of indoor marijuana.
Longmire says the high-priced medical cannabis dispensary market has separated itself from the lower end. Tons of low-quality outdoor marijuana is still grown illegally in the woodlands of California each year, but most of it is destined for export to states east of California, experts say. Fact is, such marijuana can’t find a market locally.
“The Mexican grows in the U.S. are like the Walmart of marijuana,” Longmire said. “It’s mass-produced, it’s of much-poorer quality, it’s much cheaper and there’s a lot more of it.”
The same is apparently true of Mexican marijuana. According to a paper by the RAND Corp., “We believe that Mexico’s market share is negligible in the higher-priced market segment because the great bulk of Mexico’s exports are of commercial-grade marijuana.”
The small amount of outdoor cannabis sold by dispensaries tends to come from expert gardeners in small Northern California plots operating under the uncertain legal protections of Proposition 215, the California initiative that legalized medical marijuana under state but not federal law.
On the shelves at places such as the San Francisco Patient Resource Center in the South of Market area, the outdoor pot has lab-tested as strong as what is grown indoors, and priced low for cost-conscious patients. The SPARC “sungrown” will run $200 per ounce, versus $360 for indoor product.
However, competition with indoor pot is so fierce that outdoor growers are turning to greenhouses and paying labs and certification companies to boost their products’ appeal.
Steep Hill Labs of Oakland tests medical cannabis for dozens of dispensaries across the state, analyzing samples for potency and pathogens before it is sold. Steep Hill has a booming medical cannabis certification program called SafeCannabis that consists of routine inspections and tests, as well as standardized packaging and labeling.
Just to get their products inside a dispensary door, outdoor growers must spend $20,000 on certifications and packaging for 100 pounds of medical cannabis, said Steep Hill co-founder Addison DeMoura.
“I think it is one of the best years I’ve seen for the outdoor stuff,” DeMoura said. “A lot of guys have put up some good greenhouses and it’s showing when it comes to market. … I’ve never heard on the news, ‘Mexican cartels care about who consumes their product and pay to get it tested.’”
And yet, because the boom in indoor growing has driven down prices, that has caused growers to cultivate even more plants out of doors, law enforcement officials say. And while many people may not think of San Mateo County as very wild, parts of it are remote enough to attract some shady entrepreneurs.
“It’s a lot of space,” Alcantara said. “People don’t realize it, but we’re only on about maybe 20 percent of the land.”
Despite the success of this year’s marijuana eradication campaign, Cmdr. Marc Alcantara of the San Mateo County Narcotics Task Force can’t say who was doing the growing.
That’s because his team rarely, if ever, makes arrests during eradication efforts.
Some experts say that Mexican drug cartels or even the Russian Mafia have ties to outdoor farms. But Alcantara, a 26-year task force veteran, is more circumspect than many of his peers.
“Regarding the cartels, we’re not going there,” he said. “Not unless we catch somebody.”
So just who’s responsible for all the marijuana grown on public lands in California remains murky.
Growers are rarely caught. When they are, they tend to be undocumented Hispanic immigrants — just like other California farmworkers.
“Typically, these people don’t know a whole lot,” said Michelle Gregory, of the state Department of Justice’s Campaign Against Marijuana Planting.
Consider Operation Full Court Press, a multiagency sweep of Mendocino National Forest this fall that yielded 632,058 plants, 1,986 pounds of processed marijuana, $28,031 in cash, 40 weapons and the arrests of 159 individuals.
“Ninety percent of the arrested were Hispanic, and about 70 percent illegals,” wrote Sally Fairchild, deputy director for the Northern California High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.
But just who was employing these workers remains unknown.
“When we arrest the guys, it’s some poor mope that’s a gardener,” Fairchild said. “How do you determine who’s paying the guy?”
Sylvia Longmire — an intelligence analyst, security consultant and author of the 2011 book “Cartel” — said cartels have operated in the national forests since at least 2003.
“The National Guard believes 90 percent of outdoor grows are being run by or are associated with the cartels, but because of that lack of intelligence, they can’t say what particular group is associated with what particular cartel,” she said. “They have no way of discerning that.”
Humboldt County Sheriff Michael Downey said his department has arrested not only Americans but Australian, Bulgarian, French, Mexican and Thai nationals involved in huge cultivation operations this year. They’re moving deeper into the national forest and private timber holdings.
“It definitely was an eye-opener for us as to the scope of what we’re seeing now. We are truly in a position where astronomical amounts of marijuana are being grown,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we have some Russian Mafia involved. … We’re international.”
13,404: 2011 total plants seized
3,218: 2010 total plants seized
632,058: Plants seized
117: Grow sites eradicated
1,986: Processed plants seized
$18,031: Cash seized
40: Weapons seized
159: Individuals arrested
35: Sites reclaimed
26: Tons of trash removed
80: Propane tanks removed
40: Miles of irrigation pipe removed
260: Pounds of pesticides and rodenticides removed
2.234 million: Plants seized
$5.5 billion: Estimated wholesale value
72: Weapons seized
5,042: Pounds of processed marijuana seized