- Associated Press - Monday, October 17, 2011

SANGER, Calif. — This summer, state narcotics officers have pulled millions fewer pot plants from the state’s remote forests than in past years. The reason, investigators say, is that drug traffickers have come down out of the mountains to plant pot in plain sight in backyards and on prime farmland, where California’s medical marijuana law makes them tougher to bust.

Historically, growers of large-scale illicit pot gardens relied on the cover and isolation of California’s wildernesses to protect their plants. Last year, the state’s annual campaign to root out such grows netted more than 4.3 million plants worth billions of dollars. This year, however, the number of plants seized dropped by almost half.

State anti-drug agents say traffickers have migrated to California’s Central Valley, one of the country’s most fertile agricultural zones. From here, they say pot grown on tree-sized plants makes its way not just to California’s storefront marijuana dispensaries but also to street dealers across the country.

In Fresno County alone, investigators typically expect to find 60 to 80 large grows in the mountains, said Lt. Richard Ko, head of marijuana eradication for the county sheriff’s office, in response to inquiries from the Associated Press. In 2011, they found nine, he said. Meanwhile, the number of large pot farms on the Valley floor rose to 121 countywide, up from 37 in 2010.

Instead of huge, isolated gardens, traffickers have turned to networks of smaller growing operations, investigators say.

Their smaller size keeps them off the radar of federal agents seeking bigger hauls, and local prosecutors are wary of pursuing cases against growers claiming the pot is for medical use, said longtime narcotics agent Brent Wood.

“We can’t touch ‘em, and it’s everywhere,” said Mr. Wood, who commands the multiagency Central Valley Marijuana Investigation Team.

Investigators say growers often lease plots from landowners or farmers. In some cases, the growers are small farmers themselves who grow pot to supplement their incomes or simply raise other crops as a cover from onlookers’ eyes.

Growers often post multiple pot recommendations or ID cards near their gardens, investigators say. Under California’s landmark 1996 ballot measure, patients with a doctor’s recommendation or their caregivers can grow pot for medical use. The state Supreme Court found last year that the measure trumped a later state law limiting how much pot a patient can grow. Efforts by counties to restrict the number of plants per patient were left in limbo.

“Some fields have hundreds of recommendations from doctors,” Lt. Ko said. “In order to get them, we have to catch them selling out of state or for profit.”

Investigators think much of what’s grown in farms and backyards as medical marijuana gets shipped as far as Texas, Illinois and Boston. While a glut of high-grade marijuana has brought wholesale prices in California as low as $900 per pound, agents say the same pot on East Coast streets can bring up to $3,000 per pound.

Hundreds of pot plants can be grown per acre, each potentially yielding a pound or more of pot.

“I don’t know of any crop that brings that kind of money per acre,” said Ryan Jacobson, director of the Fresno County Farm Bureau.

Earlier this month, federal prosecutors announced a crackdown on hundreds of California pot dispensaries who were warned to stop selling pot or face prosecutions and asset seizures.