When California voters legalized cannabis in 2016, supporters of Proposition 64 hoped it would significantly reduce the scourge of black market weed cultivation, particularly on public lands.
Yet nearly two years later, illegal marijuana grows are still rampant across wide swaths of the national forests in California, leaving behind a trail of garbage, human waste, dead animals and caustic chemicals. Nearly all of these farms are the work of Mexican drug trafficking organizations, posing dangers not just for the environment, but to hikers and others who might encounter them.
In 2018, law enforcement in California removed 1,396,824 marijuana plants and eradicated 889 outdoor cultivation sites, most of which were operated by Mexican drug traffickers on federal lands, according to the Central Valley California High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program.
A marijuana plant at an illegal cultivation site in the Sierra National Forest is shown.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)
“It’s a huge problem,” said William Ruzzamenti, executive director of the Central Valley HIDTA program, which includes federal, state and local agencies. “They’re growing tens of millions of plants every year on public lands in California, and they leave a huge mess when they finish.”
One of these messes was visited last week by dozens of national and state officials, who arrived in the Sierra National Forest in a Black Hawk helicopter. There, in a stretch of forest in Madera County, they toured an illegal cultivation site — believed to be run by Mexican drug trafficking organizations that authorities had raided the day before.
The site was just as the growers had left it: Sleeping bags and ragged clothing. Garbage littering the ground. Miles of plastic pipes diverting water. A stockpile of fertilizers, soil and hazardous chemicals.
Drug traffickers created a makeshift kitchen at an illegal marijuana cultivation site in the