A small marijuana field in the Chequamegon – Nicolet National Forest near Clam Lake. Photo taken in August 2011.
Growing out of business
Stopping marijuana production on state lands.
Story by Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen and photos provided by Wisconsin Department of Justice
It was 5:30 a.m., dawn was breaking and a meteor shower could be seen overhead. The damp air was mild and settled in the river bottom. If you were there to enjoy nature, as I had been many times before, it was a beautiful morning to be in the Chequamegon–Nicolet National Forest.
However, the team of law enforcement officers, who had already walked a half–mile through the dense forest, had another purpose, and when they stepped out of the trees north of the river, they could smell thousands of marijuana plants growing on clear–cut fields carved out of the forest.
As the team crossed the river toward the marijuana growers’ makeshift camp, they were spotted by one of the growers who had just risen to cook breakfast. He ran, but only after warning one of his associates. As the law enforcement team approached another “hooch,” three more growers ran barefoot out the back, leaving behind their loaded guns and other possessions.
The camp was now vacant. The area was secured and additional teams arrived to document, collect and remove all of the evidence. More than 9,400 marijuana plants — representing a street value of more than $9 million — were seized and destroyed. Other evidence, including hundreds of feet of water hose, extension cords, generators, pumps, chemicals, litter, garbage, camping equipment, three semi–automatic rifles and one pistol were seized. Officers captured one of the growers later that morning and arrested five others the next day. One was armed with a pistol. None of the men were from Wisconsin or had any ties to the area. All six were later convicted and sentenced to federal prison.
“DTO” stands for “Drug Trafficking Organization.” DTOs are criminal organizations, frequently national or international, engaged in the manufacture and distribution of controlled substances. DTO grows on public lands were first found in 1995 in the national forests of southern California. To date, they have been identified in at least 67 national forests in 20 states, including Wisconsin. Growing marijuana on public lands allows growers to shorten supply routes, reduce risks of being intercepted, and minimize the costs of smuggling their most profitable product into the Midwest.
In Wisconsin, the first DTO marijuana grow on public lands was encountered in 2008. Since then, 12 of these large open–land, occupied marijuana grows have been found with a total of more than 90,000 marijuana plants representing a street value of more than $90 million. Many of these grows have been in national forests in the northern part of the state. However, they also have been found in southeastern Wisconsin and on county, state, federal, tribal and even privately–owned lands. Wisconsin’s growing season may be shorter than California’s, but more than 5.7 million acres of public lands with fertile soil, access to water and proximity to the major markets of Chicago and the Twin Cities make the state an attractive destination for DTOs.
DTOs growing marijuana on public lands in Wisconsin typically operate on a loose, cell–based network. Those higher in the organization control different “cells” of growers, often illegal immigrants, who live and work in the forest all summer planting, tending, protecting and harvesting the marijuana. These individuals live and work in remote areas of the forest under hard, austere conditions such as Wisconsin’s heat, humidity and biting insects. They are supplied by a “lunchero” or lunch man, who brings them food, fuel and other supplies as needed.
Law enforcement response
Local and state law enforcement, including the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and federal law enforcement agencies, including the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Forest Service, have coordinated their resources and efforts to combat this ongoing public threat to Wisconsin, in pursuit of four priorities:
Public safety — Nationally, and even in Wisconsin, people tending these large DTO grows are usually armed and always dangerous. They are prepared to protect their multimillion dollar operations from competitors, thieves, accidental discovery and law enforcement raids. In California, DTO growers have actively menaced forest users, even murdering or taking citizens hostage. They have shot at biologists, rangers, ranchers, hikers, campers, anglers and law enforcement. To date, these acts of extreme violence have not been reported in Wisconsin, but the risk is real. Weapons or evidence of weapons have been found at all but one DTO grow in the state, and growers have been spotted conducting armed patrols of their grow locations. These threats to the public must be addressed.
Contraband seizure and eradication — Using conservative estimates, the wholesale value of a large DTO grow is in the millions of dollars. Locating and seizing these grows deprives the DTO of the criminal proceeds and prevents the drugs from being distributed to the public. Through aggressive law enforcement, DTOs will eventually realize that grows on Wisconsin’s public lands are not good business.
Arrest and prosecution of criminal actors — Merely seizing and eradicating a DTO’s marijuana crop will not dissuade them from continued criminal activity, as they already plan for, and can absorb, a certain amount of product loss into their “bottom line.” In addition, a coordinated effort to identify, arrest and prosecute the growers and their workers will increase the personal risk for the criminal actors and has been shown to reduce and displace DTO grow activity.
Natural resources protection — While most people understand the danger to personal safety, the illicit cultivation of marijuana on public and tribal lands also causes significant harm to the environment. In order to create access to sunlight, acres of mature trees and other plants are damaged, or even clear–cut. Chemicals and fertilizers are used haphazardly in a manner that contaminates the soil and nearby waters. Terracing and other disruptions lead to soil erosion. In addition, growers often poach wildlife, divert natural water courses, and leave human waste and garbage in the forest. According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy:
Law enforcement officials are also increasingly encountering dumpsites of highly toxic insecticides, chemical repellants, and poisons purchased by drug traftes ficking organizations, and transported into the country.
Cultivators apply insecticides directly to plants to protect them from insect damage. Chemical repellants and poisons are applied at the base of the cannabis plants and around the perimeter of the grow site to ward off or kill rats, deer and other animals that could cause crop damage. These toxic chemicals enter and contaminate ground water, pollute watersheds, and kill fish and other wildlife.
The cost to remediate the damage caused by illicit marijuana grows can be significant, creating an additional financial burden for public and tribal land agencies. Remediation may include removal and disposal of camp debris, chemicals and hazardous waste (pesticides, fuels, fertilizers, batteries). It also may include re–contouring plant terraces, filling holes and re–vegetating clear–cut landscapes. Some estimate that full cleanup and restoration can range from $14,900 to $17,700 per acre.
The Wisconsin Department of Justice — Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI), which manages Wisconsin’s Cannabis Enforcement and Suppression effort (CEASE), has helped coordinate law enforcement’s response to DTO grows on public lands by conducting ongoing training events, exchanging information with other states, and working joint criminal investigations with local sheriff and police departments, tribal law enforcement, the Department of Natural Resources, State Patrol, Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Department of Homeland Security and Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Law enforcement also has enlisted the public’s help through an informational campaign by the Division of Criminal Investigation and the Department of Natural Resources. This campaign has included awareness training for public land users and private pilots; notices published in DNR hunting regulations; posters at trailheads, parking lots, and boat landings; and news stories.
How to help
Law–abiding Wisconsin residents can play an important role in stopping the DTOs by following these guidelines. First, when enjoying public lands in Wisconsin, be aware of your surroundings and these signs of a DTO grow:
Second, if you see these signs, immediately leave the area the same way you entered. If possible, without risking your safety, mark your exact location on a map, noting landmarks, and/or GPS coordinates to help law enforcement locate the site. Try not to leave any sign you were near the growing area and be careful to avoid people or vehicles that may be associated with the grow. DO NOT try to investigate, look around for more grow or campsites or take anything with you.
Third, notify law enforcement as soon as possible by calling your local sheriff’s department or Crime Stoppers, the Wisconsin DNR Tipline at 1–800–TIP–WDNR (800–847–9367), or the Wisconsin DrugTipline at 1–800–NAB–DRUG (800–622–3784).You may remain anonymous/confidential, but it is best if you provide your contact information to allow law enforcement to follow up on your information.
Fourth, talk to other users of public lands whom you know, and share these suggestions with them. This is especially important for parents or others who are responsible for the safety of other individuals.
Law enforcement at all levels is committed to stopping DTOs, enforcing our laws, keeping people safe and protecting the environment. However, we also need your help to put these dangerous criminal organizations out of business.
J.B. Van Hollen is Wisconsin’s Attorney General.