"Southern Sweep" Hits Northern California

On June 24, 2008 while fires raged in California, 450 law enforcement officers from the California Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement (BNE), plus FBI, IRS, US Postal Service and others descended on Humboldt and Mendocino counties for "Operation Southern Sweep." Callers to local radio stations reported huge convoys of unmarked vehicles -- as many as 200 -- with the bulk of them heading towards Shelter Cove at the coast, not far from where a fire line was breached and firefighters were visiting local residents to warn them of possible evacuations.

The California Department of Justice soon confirmed that DOJ had begun an investigation in 2006 of a "large, commercial growing operation," and had brought in federal agencies due to the financial complexities of the case. Raids were staged in several areas including Miranda, Redway, Whitethorn, and Salmon Creek, and 29 search warrants were served. Officials said the locations were all connected to single 2,000-acre parcel of land in Lost River some called "Buddahville."

News of the operation had leaked the week before with rumors the DEA had booked a large block of hotel rooms in Eureka. Reportedly truck rentals were up that week as some growers scrambled to relocate their crops. Pre-raid rumors suggested Pacific Gas and Electric Co. had released records of local homes with large energy usage, but PG&E spokeswoman Jana Morris told the Eureka Reporter the company never volunteers records of any customers, although it must cooperate if authorities present search warrants.

Nonfederal agencies involved in Operation Southern Sweep include California Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement (BNE), California Highway Patrol, California National Guard Counter Drug Task Force, Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP), California Department of Fish and Game, Eureka Police Department, Humboldt County Sheriff's Office, Mendocino County Sheriff's Office and the Siskiyou County Sheriff's Office. CA DOJ/BNE task forces included the North and South Butte Interagency Narcotic Task Force, Tehama Interagency Drug Enforcement, Glenn Interagency Narcotic Task Force, Shasta Interagency Narcotic Task Force, Siskiyou County Interagency Narcotic Task Force, Humboldt County Drug Task Force, Mendocino County Major Crimes Task Force, San Jose Unified Narcotic Enforcement Team and the Madera County Narcotic Enforcement Team.

A joint DOJ/FBI press release from June 25 said although there were no building permits issued for the Lost River property, aerial photos revealed building and grading taking place. Property owners, who had purchased the property collectively in a process that reportedly took years in escrow, were told by officials they couldn't return to their property until Saturday, leaving animals and vegetable gardens unattended. Reports by locals of roadblocks and children put at gunpoint were unconfirmed by officials.

The fires began after a spectacular dry lightning storm over the weekend that started hundreds of fires in remote locations, many of which were unstaffed and still burning at the time of the operation. Locals were left wondering why law enforcement efforts weren't directed at heroin or methamphetamine, or at the huge pot plantations being grown in Mendocino National Forest, where the environmental impact have been great. News of the operation came as Congress cut $500 million from the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant program to support drug task forces across the country.

On July 2, San Francisco-based U.S. Attorney Joseph Russoniello filed two complaints for forfeiture identifying more than 20 parcels where federal agents reportedly found nearly 80 marijuana gardens and more than 12,000 plants during Operation Southern Sweep. No criminal charges have been filed to date, according to the FBI.

Also see: As fires rage, the law protects us from marijuana by Peter Schrag, Sacramento Bee

and this response, published July 8:

Tax and regulate cannabis

Re "As fire rages, the law protects us from marijuana," July 1: Kudos to Peter Schrag's common-sense call to tax and regulate cannabis. Despite the millions of tax dollars spent during last week's "Operation Southern Sweep," not one arrest was made by law enforcement, and the availability of marijuana in Northern California remains as plentiful as ever.

Let's acknowledge reality. The criminal classification of cannabis is disproportionate to its relative harmlessness to the user and to the well-acknowledged harmfulness of other substances -- particularly alcohol and tobacco.

The U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that nearly 100 million Americans have tried cannabis, and relatively few have suffered deleterious health effects because of their use. Criminalizing these millions of otherwise law-abiding citizens is expensive, engenders disrespect for the law and alienates large numbers of the population, particularly young
people.

A wiser national policy would regulate cannabis in a manner similar to
alcohol - with the drug's sale and use restricted to specific markets and
consumers. While such an alternative may not entirely eliminate the black
market demand for pot, it would certainly be preferable to today's impotent
criminal prohibition and would eliminate the need for more federal
boondoggles like "Operation Southern Sweep."

- Paul Armentano, Vallejo
Deputy Director, National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws

on July 10, the following letter was published in the Bee:

IN DEFENSE OF THE MARIJUANA BUSTS

Re "As fires rage, the law protects us from marijuana," July 1: Peter Schrag's commentary on marijuana is short-sighted on many levels. For example, he suggests that law-enforcement agencies disregard large-scale marijuana cultivation because he doesn't perceive the imminent danger to our communities. Unfortunately, Mr. Schrag hasn't followed the news for the past two years.

Specifically, heavily armed drug gangs are invading California's once pristine forest land and stripping away the lush vegetation to clear space for marijuana cultivation. In turn, sophisticated crime syndicates are creating indoor marijuana factories in nearby, quiet residential neighborhoods, dumping toxic fertilizers and assorted chemicals into the otherwise clean community water systems.

These surreptitious activities pose serious health risks to unsuspecting residents, including children attending local schools. They should not be ignored, and they cannot be tolerated. Accordingly, the Drug Enforcement Administration regards these illegal incursions by drug profiteers as a clear and present danger to our national well-being. [But, that's not who this operation targeted. -ed]

Adopting a permissive attitude toward the marijuana trade will lead to three immediate consequences. First, it will encourage more involvement by organized crime. Second, it will lead to greater devastation of our natural environment. Third, it will further endanger the long-term health of our younger citizens.

Gordon Taylor, Sacramento

Special Agent in Charge,

DEA Sacramento Office

 

Brenda Grantland, California attorney and board president of F.E.A.R. (Forfeiture Endangers Americans Rights) was interview by KMUD radio on July 10 about Operation Southern Sweep. "I've never seen them go after property like this," said Grantland. "There's no reason to come swooping with in an army of 450 agents just to seize property, because the property wasn't going anywhere. They could have quietly sat in their offices and filed forfeiture actions if they thought they had evidence." The lack of arrests is "astounding," Grantland said.

On the day Karl Rove defied Congress by refusing to testify about the firing of federal prosecutors, Grantland said Southern Sweep was "probably politically motivated because of it being close to the election. Attorney General Michael Mukasey has continued the policy of Alberto Gonzales of strengthening presidential power over the other two branches of government and also politicizing the US attorney's office to do the bidding of the president."

Grantland said if rumors are true that small-time growers with medical recommendations were caught up in the case, "for them to all be swept up with conspiracy theories that the government has floated, makes me think that maybe they did jump to some conclusions."

Asked about the history of civil asset forfeiture laws, Grantland replied that forfeiture has always existed in this country, but was very limited. In 1970 the RICO act allowed forfeiture for racketeering and drug charges. In 1984 Congress vastly increased the number of offenses and allowed police agencies to keep what they can seize. "That's what caused this to mushroom into this giant multi-billion dollar a year industry for law enforcement," Grantland said. Now over 400 statutes trigger federal forfeiture.

Asked where does the money go, Grantland said after leinholders are paid, state and local police who cooperate in the investigation can be awarded up to 80% of the proceeds of the forfeiture. The government can pay informants up to 25% of forfeited funds.

Grantland thinks the purpose of Southern Sweep was to crack down and send a message on medical marijuana, and they probably believed Humboldt county was the place to do it." She noted that at that time California's medical marijuana law passed it was emphatic in Supreme Court rulings that federal law cannot overrule state criminal or health and safety laws, and must only use the commerce clause, "not just anything they want to regulate."

Grantland said anyone who has received a forfeiture notice can stay at home, and stressed, "Everyone has to fight the forfeiture case or they will lose everything automatically." Those noticed have roughly 30 days to respond, depending on what kind of notice they get. Asked if the government had the right to kick people out of their homes during Southern Sweep, Grantland replied, "No it isn't, that's totally wrong, but what's the remedy? These people were probably afraid. . . . I think there was a lot of shock and awe tactics used here on purpose."

San Francisco-based FBI special agent Joseph Schadler, also interviewed on the show, said "This wasn't a sweep to clean marijuana out of Humboldt county. This was one case, targeting one group of people. " Schadler says charges won't be imminent. The FBI says they seized 16,000 plants, guns, and $150,000 in cash in Southern Sweep.