The federal government has launched "Operation Mercury" which trumps state law in a new effort to eradicate an out of control marijuana problem in areas such as Squaw Valley.
Since a Supreme Court ruling in 2010 that permits the growth of marijuana fields for medicinal purposes, groves have become rampant in mountain communities like Squaw Valley where many residents are frustrated and fear for their safety.
"People are moving to Squaw Valley from all over the country with the sole purpose of growing marijuana. Some are living with relatives there. It is changing the dynamics of the area. Many residents are complaining about the workers, the smell, and the possibility of being robbed. It’s having a negative impact on the quality of life in Squaw Valley," Fresno County Sheriff’s Department Sergeant Gregg Collins, said.
This year alone in Fresno County, 116 marijuana groves have been identified by the Fresno County Sheriff’s Department via aerial photographs, and half are located in Squaw Valley, according to Collins. Many residents speculate that far more fields exist that are hidden from view. Collins said the increase in marijuana fields is not only impacting local residents, but is also depleting the limited resources of the sheriff’s department.
"We have had tons of complaints from citizens who live next door to marijuana groves. It’s frustrating," Collins said.
Within the past two years, Collins said the biggest concern from local residents has been the depreciation of their property value. Many Squaw Valley residents have made quite an investment in their home and acreage, and for some it is a second vacation home.
"The property owners are losing money while the growers are making money. It’s polluting the entire community in the process," Collins said.
Since a majority of marijuana growers are armed, most Squaw Valley residents are reluctant to speak up for fear of retaliation. One long-time resident said he can spot at least two marijuana groves from his kitchen window, and noted six major pot farms within a two-mile radius of his home. He is afraid to go on vacation for fear of being robbed. He said his property value has "tanked" in recent years.
Many Squaw Valley homeowners were eager to attend a recent meeting spearheaded by the Fresno County Sheriff’s Department to announce the commencement of "Operation Mercury." The meeting was held at the Bear Mountain Library in Squaw Valley. So far, the new federal campaign has resulted in the destruction of 34 local marijuana fields and one arrest.
The Squaw Valley meeting was well-attended by those on both sides of the issue, including residents who are fed up and growers who say they have the right to grow marijuana for "medicinal purposes" according to state law. Also on-hand for the presentation were representatives from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration ( DEA ) and an attorney representing a handful of marijuana growers.
Marijuana fields have multiplied tenfold since January, 2010, when the California Supreme Court lifted all bans on Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Act of 1996. Under state law, medical marijuana users with a valid doctors recommendation may grow and possess as much marijuana as they require, provided that it is strictly for personal use. However, it is considered a felony under federal law which still prohibits the cultivation and possession of marijuana.
Over the past couple of years, marijuana fields have become rampant in California, particularly in the nearby foothills. The problem has become so out of control that the federal government has been forced to step in and supersede state law. At the start of 2012, the federal government launched Operation Mercury, named after the Roman messenger god. It is designed to send a clear message to marijuana growers in a six-county area, including Fresno County, that marijuana will no longer be tolerated.
"The marijuana fields are all over the place. We are hoping that the public will realize that they will not be warned every year. This is the year of education. If they start up a field next year, we will simply show up and make arrests. This is a transitional year," Collins said.
"Two years ago, it started getting bad. They have pushed it farther and father and last season it came to a peak. It doesn’t matter if growers posses a medical marijuana card. That doesn’t mean they can plant 200 marijuana plants in their backyard or on their property. It’s unacceptable. That’s not what the law was intended for," he added.
Under Operation Mercury, when the sheriff’s department is notified of a marijuana field, growers will be issued a letter stating that they have two weeks to destroy their marijuana fields and clear out or face consequences. If the grower fails to comply, they could face forfeiture of their property and criminal or civil penalties.
"They can no longer hide behind the shield of the medical marijuana law. The President sent his scientists out and determined that it is a ‘schedule one" drug which has no medicinal value. They have no reason to possess it, whether it’s heroine or marijuana," Collins said.
Most growers believe that if they possess a medical marijuana card, that they are exempt. However, Collins said a medical marijuana card is not a prescription, but simply a "recommendation" from a doctor and is useless when it comes to Operation Mercury. He said only a handful of doctors are in the business of writing these recommendations which come with a high price tag.
"It doesn’t matter if they fight it at the state level. It’s a violation of federal law and county ordinance," Collins said. "We are hoping to get as many fields as early as we can and let growers know right up front that they can’t do this anymore. We are educating them early to save everyone grief."
The overpopulation of marijuana fields is not only frustrating to local residents, but Collins said many neighboring states are "sick and tired of California polluting" their territory by the exportation of marijuana to other states.
Since 2010, the number of marijuana fields growing in California has grown exponentially, according to DEA representative John Donnelly. Most of what is grown in California is not consumed here, but is instead trafficked across the United States and the border. Donnelly said Operation Mercury is designed to let growers know that marijuana remains illegal under federal law.
"There’s no wiggle room," he said.
In 2009, Donnelly said 7.5 million marijuana plants were seized in California alone, more than all the other 49 states combined.
"There can’t be that many sick people. It’s a big issue here and we are hoping to change that behavior a little. The idea that we will prevent it all is not likely, but we are hoping to send a clear message," he said.