It's harvest season in the Northwest, not just for apples and wine grapes, but also for marijuana. That's why, as summer fades to fall, police in Washington and Oregon have taken to the air in search of large outdoor marijuana fields, or grows. The majority are planted on public lands and, police say, managed by Mexico-based drug cartels.
At 9 o'clock in the morning, at a small airport at the base of the Cascade Mountains, helicopters come and go. Police officers dressed in desert camouflage await their orders. This is the staging ground for what you might call Operation Marijuana Eradication.
These federal agents, state troopers and county sheriff's deputies are wrapping up a month-long blitz to search out and destroy large, outdoor marijuana grows in the Wenatchee National Forest in Central Washington. "We've got a beautiful county here," says Chelan County Sheriff Mike Harum. " It's a great place to grow just about anything: apples, pears, cherries and marijuana, which is kind of sad. But we're going to be very, very aggressive at trying to eradicate it." In fact, he says, marijuana eradication has become an annual event in this prime agricultural region of the state.
Sheriff Harum says a decade ago the largest marijuana grows here were a few hundred plants. "Now we're talking 7,000; 8,000; 9,000 plants out there and they're trying their best to try and hide it from us because they know we're looking from the air."
In the air, high over the Wenatchee National Forest, Washington State Patrol pilot John Montemayor watches a Drug Enforcement Agency chopper below him, making low circles over a windy, tree-covered canyon. It's highly dangerous flying.
Montemayor says the spotters are looking for something that doesn't belong. "It's a lighter color green. It looks like a great big green Q-tip." Here in the central part of the state, the climate lends itself to huge outdoor gardens. Last year, a record 136,000 marijuana plants were seized in Washington.
Tommy Lanier, a former Forest Service special agent who now heads the National Marijuana Initiative, notes "All public lands are being inundated with this epidemic." He says in the Eastern United States, especially in the mountains of West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee, the grows are often the work of individuals. But here in the West, Mexico-based drug trafficking rings run the operations. "Those same organizations are trafficking in cocaine, trafficking in heroin, trafficking in illegal alien smuggling, trafficking in money laundering, trafficking in ID fraud, they're involved in all those things, but they make most of their money off the marijuana trade."
On day two of Operation Eradication in Central Washington, eight narcotics officers take off for a remote site in the Wenatchee National Forest where a 3000-plant marijuana grow has been found. Lt. Rich Wiley with the Washington State Patrol says this grow, like most, is sophisticated and environmentally destructive. "They've got a small creek that they were able to dam up," he explains. "They've got PVC pipe running a significant distance, probably [almost a kilometer] down the hillside. And then they've got a second holding pond where they kind of store water - a little reservoir. And then they've got lines that come out of that and go on down the hill."
No suspects are found in this grow. But officers do find a Catholic shrine with a candle still burning. Typically each grow has at least two and sometimes as many as 20 full-time gardeners. They're usually armed. They are mostly men but this year, for the first time, police have found evidence that women and children are also living in these hidden camps.
Lt. Wiley says often the gardeners are paying off their debt for being smuggled into the U.S. "Frankly the people that in many cases are out tending the grows are folks that are trying to do the right thing by their family back home in Mexico. Yes, what they're doing is illegal. We don't approve it. But it's the organizations that are behind them, that are forcing them to do this, and that are organizing it, that we're really after."
The plants found in this outdoor marijuana garden will be uprooted and destroyed. This search and destroy operation is part of a national marijuana eradication program. The federal government will spend $3.5 million this year to put spotters in the air and crews on the ground. Lt. Wiley notes the number of grows on public lands. "When you talk about people now growing marijuana in Yosemite and Kings Canyon National Parks, I mean that's just atrocious. And it's happening in our Olympic National Park, it's happening in our public lands up and down the Cascades." He makes no apologies about aggressively going after those illegal gardens. "I don't like that as a taxpayer. I don't want to think that my family can't go hiking on public lands and be safe."
Lt. Wiley is realistic. It's impossible to stamp out all the marijuana grows. But he takes pride in destroying drugs before they hit the streets, and in making public lands safer.