California's copter cops

SPECIAL REPORT: In the air with California's anti-marijuana helicopter squad.

Pioneers of Military Enforcement
I'm in the back seat of a tiny jetcopter, travelling 120 miles per hour 500 feet above the rugged, forlorn terrain of Northern California's Mendocino County.

The copter has no doors. With wind chill, the temperature is about 0?C. I'm freezing.

In the front cockpit, warmly dressed in cozy flight suits, are pilot Fred Young and retired US Forest Service Special Agent Clar Byers. Young, shot down four times in Vietnam, has a friendly smile and nerves of steel. Byers used to spend his time chasing arsonists, poachers, timber thieves. Now, he and Byers are employees of California's Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP), North America's oldest quasi-military anti-marijuana effort.

The copter hangs on the wind as we scrutinize the territory below.

"Dope's color and leaf shape contrast against the other vegetation," Byers says through the copter's headphone communication system. "They look a lot different from what naturally grows here."

Created by the California Department of Justice's Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement in 1977, CAMP has evolved from a four-county Northern California operation into a massive statewide effort assisted by the US Customs Service, Drug Enforcement Administration, the Air Force, Marines, California National Guard, Highway Patrol, Forest Service, local sheriffs, and the Bureau of Land Management.

CAMP pioneered the use of military-style tactics, and has inspired copycat operations in other states, such as Hawaii. American drug agents advise their Canadian counterparts about the use of heavy firepower, herbicide spraying and aerial reconnaissance. Last year, Canadian authorities took their advice and began using military helicopters and soldiers for anti-marijuana efforts.

Follow the Money

CAMP is a complicated entity which exists primarily to provide back-up for local marijuana eradication efforts carried out by sheriff's departments. The program, like its helicopters, has seen many ups and downs.

From 1984 to 1990, CAMP teams seized more than 100,000 plants each year, funded by grants of more than $2 million annually. Seizures declined beginning in 1990, when almost $3 million was spent seizing 79,441 plants.

CAMP's budget began to decrease after 1990, but the agency has learned to do more with less. In 1996, CAMP used a $480,000 budget to cut 94,221 plants. Estimated plant seizures for 1997 total 132,000; the 1997 budget was $556,000.

"Our budgets have been cut and we have three helicopter crews compared to the six or seven we used to have, but we're seizing more plants," said Walt Kaiser, who became CAMP's commander four years ago. "The reason is more gardens. There's more plants out there to seize."

CAMP began keeping accurate records in 1983. Since 1983, 4 million marijuana plants valued at $16 billion have been captured by California police; CAMP garnered 37% of them ? 1.5 million marijuana plants which the government values at $6 billion. Kaiser says each mature unseeded female plant produces approximately one pound of high quality marijuana valued at $3500 per pound. He says this yield estimate comes from research conducted at the American government's very own pot farm, located in Mississippi.

CAMP has taken more than plants; it has also confiscated 2100 firearms, 238 vehicles, a half million dollars in cash, and $32 million worth of private land since 1983. Total operating costs have been approximately $25 million. CAMP is a profitable business, its budget more than paid back by the value of assets it seizes.

Dangerous Gardeners

Kaiser and other CAMP operatives insist that CAMP operations are not designed to produce revenues.

"We're not doing this to make money. Marijuana is against the law; that's why we do this," explained Kaiser. "If they legalize it, we will go on to other things. But there are severe problems associated with this sort of criminal activity. The growers aren't harmless people growing a plant. They're booby-trapping sites with trip wires, bear traps, shotgun rigs, guard dogs, wires tied to trees at head level with fish hooks attached. There's cases where they've shot at people. They're doing lots of environmental damage, cutting down trees to get light in under the canopy, leaving garbage, pesticides and fertilizers to run off into streams and soil. It's a serious public safety issue."

Kaiser asserts that marijuana growers are targeted because they often create booby-trapped grow sites on public lands used by innocent hikers, hunter and other outdoor recreationalists. CAMP statistics indicate, however, that such fears are exaggerated. CAMP has raided 6,457 gardens since 1983, only 134 of them, 2 percent, were booby-trapped. The majority of raided sites, 79 percent, were on private lands.

Kaiser says his crews are "harassed" by citizen groups which oppose CAMP operations. He calls "ludicrous" allegations that CAMP and other marijuana-eradication units terrorize citizens, damage property or violate constitutional rights.

"We've had a few problems caused by helicopters," Kaiser says. "A scared horse ran into a barbed wire fence. An emu, which you might know as an ostrich, got scared and crushed its own eggs, which are very expensive. An aviary owner had a lot of scared birds. But this happened before I took over four years ago. Since then, not one valid complaint has come in. We haven't paid out one dime in lawsuits or complaints. We do not terrorize people."

Kaiser says his men have more to fear from growers than vice-versa. He says some of his copters have been shot at.

"We've had rounds come through the bottom of copters," he said. "Some of the the guys began sitting on their [bulletproof] vests after that."

A Sophisticated Operation

I was allowed to accompany a CAMP mission because Kaiser wants journalists to "show the public that we are not doing anything but enforcing the law." He is very aware of an "image problem" that the agency had during its early years, when stories of armed soldiers invading peoples' backyards and holding hostages, sometimes in pursuit of tomato plants, were widely reported in the press.

Hoping that somebody would fit me with a bulletproof vest, my CAMP adventure began in the headquarters of the Mendocino County marijuana eradication task force, where the CAMP crew gathered before dawn to discuss the day's operations.

The headquarters was crammed with dried marijuana, horticultural equipment, and other pot-growing paraphernalia seized during arrests. The tools of the trade - ballasts, light movers, trowels, bat guano - were piled on top of each other, haphazardly labeled with evidence tags. On a shelf was a baby bottle, with nipple attached, filled not with milk but with marijuana seeds.

Although many people think that marijuana eradication consists primarily of helicopter reconnaissance and cut operations, my observations of CAMP operatives showed me that local law enforcement agencies have numerous methods for locating both indoor and outdoor gardens.

These methods include surveilling stores which sell horticultural supplies and offering rewards to citizens who provide information about people who buy supplies traditionally associated with marijuana cultivation.

The police I spoke with are experts on marijuana growing. They know all about the latest indoor lighting equipment, growing mediums, hydroponic nutrients, light cycles, flower-forcing, odour neutralizers and pump-timer systems. They're familiar with the kinds of soil amendments and fertilizers popular with outdoor cultivators. They have a network of informants who provide information about people who purchase "suspicious amounts" of such products.

Kaiser said CAMP prefers to hit sites that have already been spotted by local officials, using valuable helicopter time for well-planned operations in which crews are dropped into identified gardens for cut and haul work.

Local officials have a vast storehouse of data about grow sites and individuals involved in growing. Many officials possess intimate knowledge of their country's topography, forests, canyons and hillsides. They know marijuana's growing season, and can expertly explain how and why marijuana growers start plants indoors and transplant them outdoors near the time of

Law enforcement officials spend their off-season studying topographic maps, property tax records, transportation corridors, power lines, and other data which may indicate grow sites. They conduct reconnaissance by land and air, sometimes using military helicopters and airplanes. Sophisticated infrared radar and spectrum analysis equipment operated by military and domestic intelligence specialists detect underground irrigation tubing, garden preparations, and marijuana plants which are invisible to the naked eye. Grow sites found early in the season (CAMP operations run from July to early October) are sometimes tagged with electronic surveillance or observation teams. The idea is to catch people tending their gardens.

Marijuana eradication officials are aided by a vast network of informants. These include ranchers, loggers, miners, hunters, mountain bikers and other people who traverse the otherwise unpeopled regions of California's northern sector. People who've been arrested for growing often provide snitch information about other growers; informants are rewarded monetarily and in other ways.

All in all, the marijuana eradication network is a sophisticated, well-funded, cutting-edge operation.

Over the Emerald Triangle

Young, Byers and I lifted off in Young's jetcopter. We peered out at the tractless wilderness below us: hundreds of square miles of sparely inhabited terrain, littered with toxic waste dumps, piles of cut trees, decrepit trailers, rusted cars. This is California's fabled emerald triangle, but we are 50 miles east of the coast, and the lush green redwood forests which grow near the Pacific are nowhere to be seen.

Decimation caused by mining, logging and cattle ranching, along with summer's lack of rain, rendered the hills, mountains and vegetation a tawny brown or deep green. Marijuana leaves, lime green or yellow in colour, are particularly visible against these colour variations. I was surprised at how many details I could see from 500 feet up - all the way to the ground right through the trees.

Ninety minutes of flying produced no sightings, and when we landed at the staging area where Kaiser's crew was situated, the CAMPers appeared bored and somewhat dispirited.

"Maybe we won the war," one of them quipped. "There just ain't no more dope out there. Declare victory. Let's go home."

But Kaiser wasn't giving up so easily. He and several veterans of aerial marijuana recon traded places going up in Young's copter, returning to base camp after futile missions to discuss new places to surveil.

"It's a damned waste of time," said a sheriff as he exited the copter. "The light's bad, and it's late in the season. You should have been out here a month ago. We were getting hundreds of plants per day."

As the day wore on, I had a chance to eavesdrop on and talk with members of Kaiser's crew. The group, all men, were from 20 to 55 years old. Some were retired county sheriffs, others were national guard troops.

Some were dressed in camouflage outfits, girdled by webs of hooks, belts and straps which would allow them to "stabo" in and out of helicopters hovering in the air. They carried big guns, communications devices, machetes and other macho equipment, looking more like soldiers than police officers. Kaiser told me he disliked the term "drug war" because it implied that an occupying army was at war with its own citizens, but the CAMPers looked like nothing but soldiers. They certainly didn't look like any police officers I'd ever seen.

CAMP Thoughts

"I smoked dope in high school, and it made me really stupid," a CAMPer responded when I asked why he was on the crew. "The weed is insidious because you don't know it's hurting you. I want to take the stuff out of circulation. It's a bad plant."

Most CAMPers scoffed at Proposition 215, California's medical marijuana initiative passed by voters in 1996; they believe marijuana has no medicinal value. They also believe in the "gateway theory" which claims that marijuana leads to use of harder drugs. They believe marijuana causes brain damage, male breast enlargement, laziness and genetic defects.

"The only thing 215 did was make people thing it was OK to grow dope," said a CAMPer. "Now, we get people saying that their 300 plants are for medicinal use. It's a big joke. There's legal drugs you can get from the doctor that will work better than dope. Why not use those instead?"
Some CAMPers I talked to view marijuana growers, environmentalists and intellectuals as conspiratorial subversives whose goals threaten the moral and social fabric of American life.

"What we find when we do these raids," a CAMPer said, "is that a lot of growers have solar panels, books, hippie vans - all that counterculture crap. They use the dope money to finance their war against logging. That's about all law enforcement has time to do up here, arrest these assholes protesting logging and growing dope."

The CAMPer's assessment is partially verified by political reality. Many Northern Californians believe marijuana cultivation should be legalized, and that cutting old growth forests, timber industry use of poisonous herbicides and pesticides, and damming of rivers should be illegal. They contend that growing marijuana for medicinal and recreational uses, and growing hemp for paper and other industrial uses, would replace the region's logging-based economy with a more profitable, peaceful and sustainable one.

Many of the same people who engage in direct action civil disobedience by chaining themselves to logging equipment or 1,000-year-old redwood trees, also grow or use marijuana. And many of the same law enforcement agencies and agents involved in the war against marijuana are also involved in arresting non-violent eco-protesters. These agencies include the sheriff's departments, the California Highway Patrol, and the US Forest Service.

Kaiser Scores

Kaiser didn't divulge his feeling about marijuana, asserting that they were irrelevant. He said that even though he has spent most of his career in narcotics enforcement, his feelings about marijuana and alternative lifestyles are not what motivate him to run CAMP.
"I'm a professional law enforcement officer who started 30 years ago in the military police. I'm not out here because I'm an ideologue," he asserted. "I'm not a one-issue person. If they were to legalize marijuana tomorrow I'd have no problem leaving it and the growers alone."

Kaiser felt he was winning the war in the early 1990's, when seizures and grow sites were down. "It looked like [the growers] had begun to get the message that a tough, professional law enforcement presence was going to be on them all the time," he said.
But cultivation increased this year.

"We're seeing an influx of illegal aliens, Mexicans; they do a different kind of operation from what we call the "white boy grow", which usually has fewer plants and more sophisticated irrigation. The Mexicans plant the dope in row crops, two or three seeds to each hole, and chop out huge amounts of the forest canopy. It's just like they would plant back in Mexico. They tend to live on or near their gardens and they often have weapons and a lot to lose. We're worried about it," Kaiser said.

According to Kaiser, illegals engage in more than marijuana cultivation.

"They're big manufacturers of methamphetamines. Their coyotes bring them up here for free and tell them they'll be taken care of if they follow simple orders. Drop this bag in first, that one in second, cook it up. But they don't know what they're really doing and a lot of them are severely injured in the process," he said.

As Kaiser and I talked, the helicopter landed again, belching noise and dust. Mid-afternoon was approaching, a Pacific storm was closing in from the northwest, everyone was disappointed and tired from inactivity. Kaiser doggedly boarded the copter for one last recon. Twenty minutes later came the message his crew had been waiting for: "Bingo. We've got a garden. Prepare to move out."

Raid among the Madrones

Suddenly, the staging area hummed with activity. The truck carrying jet fuel moved into line with other vehicles, including a dumptruck used to haul marijuana. The truck had a happy face painted on each side, accompanied by the phrase "Don't worry, be happy."

"We used to burn the dope, but we had to put rubber tires in it to keep people from sucking in the smoke, and then people complained that the smoke was causing pollution. So now we carry it to a ranch where the guy buries it under 12 feet of dirt," a CAMPer explained.

Our mission became focused. The helicopter had landed in a mountaintop garden first sighted by pilot Fred Young. The copter had flown there, Kaiser said later, "because in years past we'd seen gardens in the same area."

"Fred said 'Look underneath those madrones,' but at first we didn't see that many plants. We would have just left them because the bad weather was coming in, but we kept looking and estimated there was 200 plants under there. Then when we landed we saw a vehicle with the door open, and a house, and we thought the grower might still be there. We found freshly-cut plants and footsteps leading away, the guy was dropping buds as he ran," Kaiser said.

Kaiser radioed with instructions: we were to drive our caravan to a new staging area near where he was stationed. We drove miles on dust-choked logging roads, and finally stopped to set up operations in an open field. The weather was worsening. The copter flew down, and I was bundled aboard along with a National Guardsman.

We rose so fast my stomach felt like it had been heliumized. The pilot circled over the mountaintop, which was covered with madrone, manzanita and oak trees.

"See those plants down there? See that house? This guy's been growing for a long time," Young said.

I looked down, afraid I would fall out of the copter. I saw trees, mountainside, but no pot plants, no house.

We landed and leapt from the copter. Kaiser briefed the Guardsman, who took me along well-worn paths to a huge black water reservoir. Attached to it were hundreds of feet of rubber hose, forming an intricate network of valves and timers and circular grow sites.

The plants, all females, some partially seeded, were growing in groups of four to a dozen. A few male plants, cut and desiccated, were piled in clearings. The females looked like Sativa-Indica hybrids, with Sativa dominance.

Buds were not dense or particularly large-diameter, but they were at peak development, covered with sparkling resin glands. There were few yellow leaves, no evidence of insect manifestation, no signs of drooping or other problems. They were primed for harvest.
The plants averaged seven feet tall, although some were ten to fifteen feet high. Each plant had a circular girdle of drip irrigation tubing at its base; stalks were two to six inches in diameter.

"What a terrible stink. You never forget that smell. I can be walking in the woods and not see them, but I'll smell them," he said. "These are well-tended plants. Somebody has already harvesting a few of them. Look how the tops have been cut. They've been tied to the madrones to keep a low profile so we couldn't see them. Look how some of them are growing right up the madrone branches like they're part of the tree. This is a professional operation. This guy's been doing this for years."

Team Spirit

More Guardsmen arrived by copter. The cutting took on the aura of an athletic event. Cutters sprinted from garden to garden, hacking at the plants with machetes, cursing and sweating as they fell over stumps and uneven ground, grunting as they dragged dozens of huge plants into clearings.

Kaiser had told me his men kept a meticulous double count as they harvested plants, but I noticed that the CAMPers were having a hard time just keeping their footing. Some of the plants were hacked in two, and may have been counted as two plants. Other plants were ripped to shreds, turning into disconnected branches, crushing and oozing on the ground under our feet.

The cutters were covered in sticky resin and the pungent perfume of green, uncured bud. The aroma was enough to make me dizzy, and I wondered, as I watched the CAMPers running around in a frenzy, if any of them were getting high. Some of them had glassy eyes and goofy smiles; perhaps the THC was seeping into their skin.

The cutters critiqued each other's techniques, screeching at each other for walking by plants without seeing them. They chopped away at madrone and other foliage, hurrying to dislodge all the marijuana before the helicopter came back to take the cut plants away. Kaiser watched his men like a benign football coach watches a winning team on the field. "We can cut 2,000 plants in three hours," he said proudly.

I heard the helicopter's buzzing, and sprinted for the clearing where the cut plants were being piled. The copter came into view, trailing a 150 foot long rope. CAMPers were placing plants into large nets, securing the nets with large hooks, fastening the hooks to the copter's rope. The bundle of plants was ten feet high and ten feet wide. I hoisted a few of the plants; they weighed at least 100 pounds.

The copter slowly lifted tens of thousands of dollars worth of marijuana into the air. The bundle swung like a pendulum in the ever-increasing gale. We ducked as it swung toward us.
After the copter disappeared, the Guardsman chastised two of his team members for leaving a bundle of plants on the trail. There would be no more helicopter haul-aways that day. The plants would have to be carried or trucked down the mountain.

"I don't want to be walking around out there," a Guardsman said. "This isn't friendly territory. We don't know where the bad guys are. A lot of times, they hear the copter and start running. We don't go after them. They might be waiting out ahead of us and do an ambush."

Kaiser said his men do not chase gardeners during initial cut operations. They prefer to identify them later, if possible, using evidence found at the scene.

Later that night, after securing a search warrant, Kaiser and two other CAMPers entered the house. They found a quarter million dollars worth of dried marijuana, three guns, a satellite television system, a computer and ? bingo ? a driver's license. They fired up the wood stove, cooked up some military-issue dehydrated meals, and slept on the grower's floor. In the morning, they had cups of coffee and discussed the successful finish to another CAMP season: 350 plants harvested, and a prime parcel of private land ripe for asset forfeiture.

An Honest Living

There's no questioning the professionalism, ruggedness and sheer zeal of Kaiser and his people. They treated me with courtesy and care, answered all my questions and seemed to be "good Americans" who truly believe that all laws are meant to be enforced, not broken.

I hate to admit it, but the drug warriors are a lot more focused and dedicated than most people I've met in the marijuana-hemp movements. They're highly-motivated and well-organized. They work well as a team, united by dogmatic beliefs and a common "enemy".

For anybody who believes that every destroyed marijuana plant is medicine and sacrament wasted, the effectiveness of CAMPers should be very depressing, if not terrifying. These guys are serious warriors willing to do whatever it takes to win, and they play for keeps.

CAMPers appear to be true believers, the kind of people who never allow themselves to consider the pros and cons of what they are doing. Their hobbies are blood sports like hunting; several of them think of marijuana plants as prey and CAMPers their predators.

If one plant is worth $3500, all a CAMPer would have to do is lose one or two along the way, retrieve it, and bank the bounty as a substantial salary bonus. How to prevent that? Hire a group of guys who believe marijuana is so evil that they would never want to profit from it - they only want to destroy it.

I tried to get CAMPers to muse philosophically about the drug war's origins, its efficacy, its ethics. Whether it's right for governments to wage literal war against plants and send citizens to prison for ingesting plants, whether million of dollars spent destroying billions of dollars worth of high-priced agricultural commodity could be better spent ? but these questions didn't interest them.

In their minds, the equation is simple. "Dope" is bad. It's against the law. Good citizens obey all laws. People who grow or use dope are criminals failing to abide the social contract which says that we all have to give up illegal (and allegedly harmful) pleasures so we can have an orderly society. People who "love dope" have one choice: work to legalize it. Until it is legalized, growers and users will be relentlessly hunted and prosecuted.

I remembered what one National Guardsman said, covered in sweat, as he watched the bundled plants hauled into the sky.

"Take that, dope grower," he shouted, jabbing his fist into the air. "You won't be making any money off this dope. Earn an honest living like the rest of us."

An honest living indeed. And besides, as one CAMPer admitted, it's fun getting paid to dress up in camo suits and leap out of helicopters. "It's the closest thing to Vietnam I'll ever see," a young CAMPer exclaimed.

Marijuana plants are the ultimate patsy, he admitted, an enemy that cannot run and hide, cannot fight back. When cut, they simply go limp and die.

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