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California expands largest national grass eradication effort

SACRAMENTO, California (AP) – With California’s legal marijuana market in disarray for four years, the state attorney general said on Tuesday that he will attempt a new and broader approach to stop illegal marijuana cultivation, which undermines the economy. legal and devastate the environment. damage. .

The state will expand its nearly four-decade multi-agency seasonal eradication program – the largest in the United States that has harvested nearly a million marijuana plants this year – in a year-long effort to investigate who is there. behind illegal crops. The new program will attempt to prosecute underlying labor crimes, environmental crimes and the shadow economy focused on illicit crops, Attorney General Rob Bonta said.

He called it a “significant shift in mindset and mission” also aimed at helping California’s ailing legal market by removing dangerous competition.

“The illicit market wins over the legal market,” said Bonta. “It is upside down and our goal is the complete eradication of the illegal market.”

In line with the new approach, the annual Campaign Against Marijuana Plantations (CAMP) program launched under Republican Governor George Deukmejian in 1983 will become a permanent task force for the eradication and prevention of illicit cannabis (EPIC), he said. Good.

CAMP started in “a very different time, a different time, a different time when the war on drugs failed and (at) a time when cannabis was still completely illegal,” Bonta said.

The seasonal eradication program, which lasts approximately 90 days each summer, will continue in collaboration with other federal, state and local agencies. They include the United States Forest Service, the United States Office of Land Management, the United States Drug Enforcement Administration, the National Park Service, the California Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, the California state parks and the California National Guard, some of which will also participate in the new working group. . , He said.

The task force will work with prosecutors from the state Department of Justice, the department’s cannabis enforcement section, and an existing Tax Clawback in the Underground Economy (TRUE) task force created by law in 2020, all with l it aims to file civil lawsuits and prosecutions against those behind the illegal crops.

California federal and state prosecutors have long tried, without much success, to target organized crime cartels behind hidden farms, rather than the often itinerant workers hired to care for and guard the often remote patches of marijuana scattered around. on plots of public and private land.

Workers often live in rudimentary fields with no running water or sewage and use caustic pesticides to kill animals that might otherwise eat the growing plants. But the pollution they leave behind has spread to downstream water supplies, and pesticides can travel through the food chain.

Workers are victims of human trafficking, Bonta said, “they live alone in squalid conditions for months with no way out. They are not the ones who profit from the illegal cannabis industry. They are mistreated, they are the victims. They are cogs in a much larger and more organized machine.

For example, about 80 percent of the 44 illegal farming sites found in and around Bureau of Land Management properties this year were linked to drug trafficking organizations, said Karen Mouritsen, California state director of the ‘office.

“Clearly there are major challenges when it comes to organized crime,” Bonta said. But he said he expects better results this time around because the new effort by multiple agencies throughout the year “will make a big dent, a little thud, and a lot of noise about our common priority to fight the illicit market, even at the highest level. tall”.

Bonta is in the running to keep his spot for Republican challenger and former federal prosecutor Nathan Hochman in next month’s election. He takes a recent approach familiar to Democrats nationwide, focusing on the dealers who supply illegal drugs rather than the users who support the shadow economy. President Joe Biden said last week that he was forgiving thousands of Americans convicted of “mere possession” of marijuana under federal law, while San Francisco officials announced a new effort to curb the trafficking of open drug bottles. .

For those seeking to exist within the California voter-approved legal market in 2016, the problem has been plummeting pot prices, restricting sales, high taxes despite the recent repeal of the cannabis growing tax, and the fact that buyers can find better deals in the booming underground market.

Along with the nearly one million plants that Bonta valued at around $ 1 billion, this year’s eradication program seized more than 100 tons of processed marijuana, 184 weapons, and about 33 tons of materials used to grow the plants. including dams, water pipes and containers of toxic chemicals, including pesticides and fertilizers.

Don Thompson, Associated Press

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