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— Is more marijuana grown in San Diego, Orange and Riverside counties than in Humboldt, Mendocino, Trinity and Del Norte counties? And do Mexican nationals produce close to 90 percent of San Diego County's crop?

Yes and yes, says Tommy Lanier, special agent-in-charge for the U.S. Forestry Service in Southern California. In the first growing season since November's passage of Proposition 215 (legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes), he says, more is being grown, more Mexicans are growing it, and San Diego and neighboring counties have unseated the "Emerald Triangle" of Northern California as the state's hub of marijuana production.

"More is grown here than in Northern California because of these large plantations cultivated by Mexican nationals," Lanier says. Officials up north say they also see an increasing Mexican influence. "Mexican organizations are coming in and taking over," special agent Bill Ruzzimenti recently told the San Francisco Examiner.

"These are poly-drug organizations with the wherewithal and access to money and the established distribution systems [for heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamines] to set up illegal marijuana gardens," said Ruzzimenti, who supervises marijuana investigations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

The gardens' size also indicates the scale of operations, according to Pat Lyng, assistant regional special agent for law enforcement for the U.S. Forestry Service in California. "We're getting industrial-sized gardens of 3000 to 4000 plants, which is really against the norm," Lyng told the Examiner.

But Lyng's figures pale beside Lanier's observations in San Diego and neighboring counties. "We've found garden sites with 18,000 to 23,000 plants in our area," says Lanier. "The street value depends on the quality of the THC [tetrahydrocannabinol, marijuana's psychoactive compound], and that is up and down, depending how they grow the dope, and if they have people who know what they're doing. We [also] suspect they distribute [the product] here."

Ruzzimenti says Mexican growers are also taking advantage of illegal immigrants. "They say, 'Work for us, and we'll give you a green card and keep you in the States,' which is just a crock."

Law enforcement officials say they come to these conclusions from the arrests they make in the gardens, as well as evidence they find - stale tortillas, Mexican flags, and Spanish literature. But the tell-tale sign, says San Diego's Lanier, is the style of cultivation. "You can tell it's Mexicans because they row up the plants like corn. Anglos will spread the plants out to cut their visibility. Most of [the Mexicans] are sent up, paid, and supplied with food [by Mexicans coming through]. Someone brings food for them to eat, someone comes and checks on the plants. And they live right there, by the gardens, for maybe six months."

In the absence of more than circumstantial evidence, how credible is the idea of a "Mexican menace"?

Lieutenant Bill Baxter of the narcotics task force doesn't accept Lanier's "90 percent" figure. "Tommy Lanier is primarily concerned with sites on U.S. Forestry land and contiguous areas," says Baxter. "Forestry land is maybe 20 percent or less of [San Diego County] totals. If there are 15 or 20 sites on forestry land in any given year, 90 percent might only mean 9 or 10 or 12 [of his sites]. I just don't know what Tommy's using for his basis, so I won't [try to interpret it]."

Baxter also says he doesn't see any phenomenon of the Mexican cartels moving in. "The general trend I've seen through the last two years is: yes, they're there; there is an influence from the Mexican nationals. But the Mexican nationals who are growing marijuana appear to be supplementing [their] incomes. They're associated with remote agricultural sites, primarily avocado groves. It's not a cartel thing."

Baxter doesn't deny that production figures in the county are healthy. "We are [destroying] a bumper crop from that standpoint," he says. "We did about 40-some thousand plants last year. We'll probably get 60,000 this year. It tends to fluctuate within 10 percent. The West Coast is kind to the marijuana plant. The season is theoretically a lot longer. You have better weather clear until December. We have eradicated growth sites into Thanksgiving and beyond. At the end of October, first part of November, it's usually harvest season. That's when most of the growers are looking at getting their crop out. We've been busy for the last two months."

In Northern California they're also talking records. The Sacramento-based Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP) claims to have destroyed 116,500 marijuana plants through September, compared with 94,221 for all of 1996.

Lanier says favorite San Diego County areas include Mount Palomar and Cleveland National Forest. "Sixty to 70 percent of the marijuana we take out is large growth [bigger plantations]. The smaller growth is more difficult to spot [especially from the air]. It often depends on how good the spotter is. We find most of our targets based on spotter planes and informants. Hunters sometimes report. We get telephone calls."

Both Baxter and Lanier agree that out in the wild, where the gardens grow, caution is required. Especially if you're about to ruin six months' work and potential profits.

"Yes, it's very dangerous," says Lanier. "Especially if [you come across] an investment worth $10 to $20 million - from 5000 to 10,000 plants. That's [partly] why we try to eliminate them from forest lands. We have to think about hunters stumbling into a garden, facing confrontation with armed men. Usually what happens is they are advised to leave. But it could get difficult. Some have said they've seen men with guns."

Lanier says he has "50 or so enforcement people" he can call on and a $350,000 annual budget.

"On a typical raid," he says, "quite a few get away. Some of our operations are fly-ins, mostly in rough terrain where it would take hours to hike into. These places they choose are not just off the highway. If they're caught with 200 plants or over, the federal minimum mandate is five years. But we try not to make every charge federal, because it will overload the federal system."

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