Clandestine marijuana farms planted by organized criminals in the Los Padres National Forest wreak havoc on the environment and create danger for visitors.

But now, some Ventura County law enforcement officials are hopeful that the shift toward legal cannabis has reduced the financial incentive to plant so-called “grows” in the local backcountry. Drug gangs may be switching from labor-intensive marijuana to more profitable and addictive drugs, including opioids.

During last year’s annual enforcement efforts, Ventura County Sheriff’s Department investigators were surprised to see the number of plants they seized drop by over two-thirds compared to 2017, from about 128,000 to fewer than 40,000. Results from this summer’s eradication operations could reveal whether that will become a trend.

Senior Deputy Frank Underlin has worked for decades investigating backcountry marijuana grows. He says locals were responsible for most of the early busts he made, and the plants were relatively easy to find.

“I can remember very distinctly the first case that I was involved in was during 1986. I was working as a resident deputy up in Lockwood Valley, and a local resident had substantial marijuana cultivation near Camp Scheideck on the north side of Pine Mountain,” says Underlin.

Over the years, grows moved deeper into the vast and rugged forest, far from roads and established trails. Growers learned to camouflage the marijuana plants among native vegetation. The larger grows also expanded in scope, with some topping 30,000 plants.

Underlin says that most of the people they’ve arrested in more recent years are not locals, and are likely associated with drug cartels. Some are migrant farm workers who claim they had no idea what kind of agricultural work they’d be involved in.

Sometimes it’s hard to tie the suspects they arrest directly to the cartels, because they’ve been threatened, and are frightened to admit who they’re working for.

“It’s pretty well established that the Mexican cartels control virtually all drugs and drug movement within the United States. Some of the people we find in the grows are definitely working off their transportation here. And one of the reasons they won’t talk, is because they know that their families are in danger,” says Underlin. “That’s typical cartel-type behavior.”

Ventura attorney Jay Leiderman represented people caught at backcountry grows when he served as a Ventura County Deputy Public Defender. Since starting a private law practice, he’s worked with medical marijuana collectives and cannabis businesses facing the crosshairs of law enforcement. He’s known as an expert on issues related to cannabis law, as well as for his recent involvement in high-profile computer hacking cases.

Leiderman says when he represented people caught in the backcountry grows on criminal drug cultivation charges, they described laboring under horrible conditions.

“They were really bottom rung. There was always talk that their families were threatened. They would live out by the grow. These people slept in hammocks for six months. They would go to get a food drop once a week, and it was not a tremendous bounty,” says Leiderman. “They were most certainly not the kingpins. They were treated very poorly. I get what they were doing was illegal, but your heart bleeds for them because they were treated in a terrible manner.”

Backcountry marijuana grows unleash untold damage on the sensitive forest environment critical for endangered plant and animal species. California condors, bighorn sheep and California red-legged frogs see their habitat destroyed.

Streams that animals rely on for drinking water are diverted to thirsty marijuana plants. Plastic pipes span miles, and can even take water from one canyon to another to fill makeshift reservoirs. Natural vegetation animals require for food and cover is destroyed. Deer are poached and eaten. Bears and other animals that scare growers are found shot to death.

Los Padres National Forest Spokesperson Andrew Madsen says debris left behind is another major issue. “Successful grow sites that operate for a couple of seasons end up having a lot of trash, garbage and human waste. The PVC pipes, the irrigation lakes, gardening tools, all of these are having a critical impact on previously undisturbed habitat,” says Madsen.

Another serious risk to both the environment, and people working to clean up the damage, involves toxic materials left behind.

“They bring a lot of chemicals, pesticides and rodenticides that are illegal here in the United States,” says Madsen. “They’re used because they’re a higher strength and have a greater impact on what they’re trying to contain out there. At the same time, they also have very detrimental effects on the natural resources, the watershed, the animals and the plants.”

During one eradication operation last summer, another disturbing discovery was made in a canyon near Sespe Hot Springs, where a rare herd of bighorn sheep live.

Scientists with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife launched a study during 2017 to learn more about the reclusive species, and placed radio collars on 19 bighorn sheep. Six of those were found dead over a 12-month period, which is considered significant and unusual.

“Finding an illegal marijuana grow in the Sespe Wilderness last year is disturbing but not surprising,” says CDFW Information Officer Janice Mackey. “Finding the deceased animals near marijuana grows is also suspicious.”

Remains of the bighorn sheep were analyzed to determine exactly what killed them, but the tests were inconclusive.

People who enjoy exploring the forest while hiking, hunting and driving off-road vehicles have been confronted by growers with firearms in recent years.

Underlin says on one occasion, someone near Potrero Seco camp west of Pine Mountain had a close call. “We had a hunter, as he entered a grow, hears a rifle shot go by him, and thought that was a distinct warning to leave, which he did,” says Underlin.

Drug enforcement experts believe increased efforts to secure the Mexican border and offshore smuggling routes help explain why cartels moved marijuana production to U.S. government-owned land. “They found that if they grow it here, that’s just one of the hazards that they can avoid because they already have it in country. They don’t have this huge bulk of marijuana that they’re trying to transport across the border,” says Underlin.

The sheriff’s department responded to the challenge by creating one of the most extensive and organized backcountry marijuana eradication programs in Southern California.

“Fortunately our department has been in a very aggressive mode for years. Each of the Sheriffs we’ve had in the last 20 years really believes in keeping the backcountry safe. We have a pretty substantial aviation unit, and we spend a lot of time searching for marijuana cultivations. And then when they’re out doing rescues they’re always watching,” says Underlin.

State and federal grants help fund marijuana eradication operations in Ventura County, which are conducted by a team that includes numerous law enforcement agencies. Last year the department was awarded $74,000, which is less than past years when the grants regularly topped $100,000.  

Underlin says marijuana grown in the local backcountry is generally lower quality than cannabis available on the legal market in California, where stringent testing for chemical impurities is required and a competitive market for premium cannabis is developing.

Investigators send some of the marijuana confiscated in the forest for testing at a lab. Levels of the psychoactive component THC are lower than what’s typically offered at legal dispensaries, but have risen over time.

Underlin says marijuana grown in the Ventura County backcountry is generally consumed outside of California, one of the first sates to legalize medical marijuana.

“The intelligence that we’ve had is that it’s being shipped primarily out of California, to the east coast or Midwest where it’s not legal, and where marijuana is more difficult to obtain than it is here in California,” says Underlin.

Tearing out all the plants at the larger grows is an extreme effort that involves a team of around 20 people.

“It’s really arduous,” says Underlin. “We take machetes and loppers and cut every plant down. Sometimes you have 30,000 plants that you have to cut. You have to drag them. You have to stack them. You have to bring the helicopter in, and you have to sling that out. It’s dirty. It’s hot. There are bugs. There are rattlesnakes. It’s a tough, tough day.”

Bryant Baker is Conservation Director for Los Padres ForestWatch, a charity dedicated to protecting the forest ecosystem. In the past he worked with U.S. Forest Service law enforcement rangers to organize volunteer efforts cleaning up grow sites after the marijuana plants were removed. But Baker says that job is now deemed too dangerous for volunteers.

“Some of these chemicals are being found in old tubing and things like that, so the forest service has changed how they approach these sites,” says Baker. “They’ve moved away from bringing in volunteers to help clean up the trash, just out of an abundance of caution.”

Eradication efforts during last year’s growing season yielded far fewer plants than during 2017, according to Underlin. “We used to be able to do 12 to 18 backcountry eradications a season. This past season has been the lowest one since I’ve been involved, when we did four. The number of plants used to range between 80,000 and 130,000 plants that we would eradicate. Last year we only got 40,000 plants.”

Underlin says they’re still trying to determine what’s responsible for that drop.

“So was that due to eradication efforts? Was the drought responsible for that? Or has the legalization of marijuana had an impact to where there are less grows? The intel that we get now is that marijuana is much less profitable than it used to be,” says Underlin.

Underlin is hoping legalization could help stem the need for so many grueling eradication efforts in the future.

“I would have to say that the legalization has had a positive impact because they’re not doing backcountry grows as much. But I think this will be the telltale year, because we’ve got plenty of water in the backcountry,” says Underlin.

Leiderman is less confident that illegal grows will soon disappear, because the black market for marijuana is still thriving.

“I do think legalization at some point is going to curb the actual growing that’s happening in the backcountry,” says Leiderman. “It’s not there yet.”

Leiderman believes politicians need to ease restrictions on legal cultivation that make it harder for the burgeoning cannabis industry to thrive.

“Licensed, lawful growers have complained that the black market is still taking a decent portion of their business. That’s because cities are shortsighted and not thinking about the tax revenue and the benefit they can bring. They’re just thinking ‘We don’t want cannabis in our jurisdiction,’ and that’s the end of it,” says Leiderman. “With more permits, and with time, you’re going to see a dissipation of the black market.”

People engaged in legal cannabis sales at Ventura County dispensaries feel the effects of competing against criminal growers. They say consumers can save money by avoiding state and local taxes at dispensaries that are far higher than what other types of businesses pay.

Chelsea Sutula is CEO of Ojai’s Sespe Creek Collective and says the unfair competition impacts her profits.

“It’s just really hard to survive,” says Sutula. “Right now there are big deserts for access where cities and counties have banned everything, so there’s plenty of room for the black market to get a footing.”

Sutula is also concerned about a recent decision by the Ojai City Council to place a measure on the November 2020 ballot that would create a new local cannabis tax. Recreational cannabis sales in California are already subject to a 15 percent state excise tax as well as sales taxes, which vary among cities. There’s also another state tax on cultivators, which gets passed on to consumers.

Ojai city leaders say it’s one of the only places in California where recreational sales are allowed but there’s no local cannabis tax.

If Ojai voters approve the measure, the tax would start at 3 percent, and could later be raised as high as 10 percent by the City Council. Six percent is around the average for local taxes in other California cities, although some have set much higher rates such as 15 percent.

Port Hueneme is the only other city in Ventura County where recreational cannabis sales are allowed. City leaders there negotiated a deal with dispensary owners on a 6 percent tax, which is adding about $2 million a year to city coffers.

Ojai City Council members hold a variety of views on issues surrounding cannabis sales, and how the local tax measure might impact the city’s three dispensaries.

Mayor Pro Tem Suza Francina says taxes on legal cannabis make it harder for legal dispensaries to compete. “From my perspective it’s the high cannabis taxes that keep the black market thriving, and I think the state is recognizing that,” says Francina.

But Ojai City Council member Ryan Blatz believes cannabis consumers don’t mind paying taxes when they know the transactions are legal and the products are tested for contaminants.

“People generally want to follow the law and do things above board, and have it done legally. It eliminates the fear factor,” says Blatz. “They’re willing to pay the tax for a legal transaction with tested products that are higher quality.”

The exact language for Ojai’s ballot measure is under development and should be approved at a future council meeting.

Sutula is hopeful that as cannabis becomes legalized in more places across the nation, the demand for cannabis grown illegally in the backcountry will die off.

“I definitely think there’s less reason for those kinds of grows to survive,” says Sutula. “One of the great benefits of regulation is having lab testing, and knowing where it’s coming from, and that it’s grown in ways that don’t hurt the environment.”