It would be tempting to crack jokes about our areas hot new cash crop. You know, the one that grows taller than corn but looks more like a tomato plant. But theres nothing funny about the startling number of major marijuana grows that authorities have been finding in back yards and hidden fields in the area.
An increasing amount of violent crime has been associated with these large marijuana-growing operations, including three homicides in the Modesto area this summer.
Over the past several years, authorities say marijuana growing has been a factor in a number of home-invasion robberies. The drug angle often does not surface in the initial news coverage of such events.
Said Stanislaus County District Attorney Birgit Fladager, Clearly, a lot of marijuana is being grown in the Central Valley ... and it is destined for the mass market and nationwide distribution not cancer patients.
Thats a critical distinction. Local authorities are not going after people who are growing a half dozen or dozen marijuana plants for their own personal use. Those who have legitimate doctors orders to use marijuana are not and should not be the targets of law-enforcement crackdowns.
But thats not what were seeing here. Officers are hacking down hundreds or even thousands of plants at a time, and getting tips about more such grows.
Modestos acting police chief, Gene Balentine, said there are marijuana raids almost daily. There were four more raids on marijuana plots Friday. Some suspects have been linked to Mexican drug cartels, but those arrested arent easy to stereotype. Both genders and all ages and ethnicities are represented.
Because the harvest and therefore the busts are still going on this harvest season, there arent yet solid numbers to show an increase in busts or where marijuana now stands as a problem in comparison with methamphetamine, cocaine or heroin.
Authorities say meth production is down in the valley, though not necessarily usage. Law enforcement made progress in reducing the number of meth labs by making it harder to get the precursor chemicals. That's why it can be difficult to buy many cold medicines.
What's needed to cultivate marijuana good soil, sunshine, water and fertilizer are the same things needed to grow a nice vegetable garden. So preventing large-scale marijuana cultivation is harder. Police get tips from people who detect the distinctive odor of marijuana or who become suspicious when a neighbor suddenly nails plywood to the fence, making it 10 feet tall. Marijuana grows are easily seen from the sky.
Stanislaus is not part of Operation Mercury, a joint effort of federal, state and local authorities in several valley counties. Federal officials say their crackdowns on marijuana plantations in national forests and other public lands seem to be pushing growers into other states. Similarly, Stanislaus County might be seeing more large grows because of the zealous eradication efforts in the southern San Joaquin Valley. Police say those arrested in a recent raid were from Fresno.
Regardless of where the marijuana plantations are found, authorities are convinced the intent is criminal and not medical.
"Marijuana grown in this state supplies the nation," Benjamin Wagner, the U.S. attorney in Sacramento, said at a news conference last month. "Huge amounts of marijuana growing here are flowing to the East, to other states in the East."
California has an inconsistent attitude toward marijuana. In 1996, voters supported Proposition 215, which allowed marijuana for medicinal use. Few valley cities ever OK'd medicinal marijuana dispensaries, and some of urban areas that did approve them are trying to pull back because of problems and the enormous number of them. Los Angeles OK'd the dispensaries and then recently banned them, provoking a petition drive to stop the ban.
Many people advocating the legalization of marijuana say the drug is harmless and authorities should not harass people who find marijuana as the only or best way to relieve severe or chronic pain. But Fladager said authorities making arrests have found copies of doctor's orders that turn out to be fraudulent.
If you need more evidence that growing marijuana is a criminal enterprise, look at what those arrested in connection with the plots are carrying guns, knives and other weapons, and often other drugs.
This isn't what voters had in mind when they approved the so-called Compassionate Use Act.
RECENT POT BUSTS
Law enforcement agencies from Stanislaus, San Joaquin and Merced counties have had a busy "harvest" season, confiscating and destroying thousands of marijuana plants. Some recent raids:
Aug. 31: 271 plants, Modesto
Aug. 29: 130 plants, Salida
Aug. 28: 491 plants, Waterford
Aug. 28: 187 plants, Turlock
Aug. 27: 74 plants, Modesto
Aug. 23, 1,800 plants, Patterson
Aug. 22: 1,000 plants, Newman
Aug. 22: 41 plants, Modesto
Aug. 16: 1,500 plants, Ceres
Aug. 16: 100 plants, Modesto
Aug. 14: 200 plants, Riverbank