Guest editorial: Large-scale grow operations a major hazard

Published on Thu, Sep 20, 2012 by Sheriff Bill Elfo

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The August 21 edition of The Bellingham Herald reported on a Whatcom County Council committee meeting where the council was requested to consider accepting grant funding to eradicate large-scale marijuana cultivation operations. The article was headlined: “Council majority supports legal pot” and “Grant to find pot farms rejected.” 

It is important to distinguish the public debate on marijuana legalization and Initiative 502 (to legalize marijuana for personal use) from law enforcement’s responsibility to address dangers and risks associated with criminal enterprises that engage in large-scale marijuana cultivation for profit. 

In these days of dwindling resources and increasing challenges, law enforcement in general and the sheriff’s office in particular, must prioritize available resources toward those crimes that most affect the safety of the public. Jail bookings from all Whatcom County law enforcement agencies for simple possession of marijuana account for less than one-quarter of one percent of total jail bookings and 0.008 percent of total jail bed days. 

Marijuana is an extremely valuable crop, and cultivation operations are often controlled by sophisticated drug-trafficking organizations that act with reckless disregard for the environment and public safety. Locally, these operations have been the site of robberies, kidnappings and serious assaults. Firearms are frequently found at cultivation sites. Any notion that large-scale marijuana-cultivation operations are innocuous and do not present dangers to innocent citizens is without foundation.

Criminal networks involved in indoor marijuana cultivation frequently rent residences from unsuspecting landlords. Cultivation requires three to 10 times the electricity of a normal home and often results in bypassed meters and overloaded electrical circuits that increase the risk of fire and associated hazards to neighbors and firefighters. It is not uncommon for these organizations to damage homes by removing walls and ceilings to accommodate hydroponic lighting systems. Mold resulting from watering is nearly always present. Following the harvest, those involved frequently abandoned the then-destroyed residence. Furthermore, indoor grow operations are attractive targets for other criminals and bring the risk of violence to neighborhoods when they are robbed.

Outdoor marijuana-cultivation operations often occur on public lands or on land owned by unsuspecting property owners. Common attributes of these operations include the diversion of streams and the use of harmful chemicals. Across the nation, they are often found to be maintained through the forced labor of victims of human trafficking and guarded by human traps that pose risks to hikers, property owners and other passers-by.

As part of national and statewide strategy to eradicate the dangers posed by marijuana grow operations, the federal government appropriates funding to assist local law enforcement as they fulfill their responsibility to remove these sites and their associated dangers. The $5,000 in funding the Northwest Regional Drug Task Force receives annually as part of this strategy is not and cannot be directed toward personal or legal medical marijuana use. Rather, it is directed toward doing what is required to protect our community from the dangerous activities of drug-trafficking organizations.

The Northwest Regional Drug Task Force devotes nearly all of its activities to disrupting drug trafficking and gang activity that present the highest risks to our community. 

It regularly builds cases against those involved in methamphetamine and heroin sales in residential neighborhoods and traffickers transporting massive quantities of these drugs along with cocaine through our community. A long-term investigation into a methamphetamine and stolen property trafficking network resulted in the federal indictment of more than 20 persons and the removal of members of a well-organized white supremacist gang from our community. 

However, we cannot ignore those criminal organizations whose dangerous and reckless activities in cultivating marijuana put our citizens in harm’s way. We also cannot fail to respond to requests of neighbors and property owners legitimately demanding that we fulfill our responsibility to protect them and their property.

Our unique position on the international border often places demands on the local criminal justice system that involve interstate and international shipments of narcotics. Fortunately, the council ultimately approved the grant, which in a small way helps our community in alleviating this menace.

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