Some of the marijuana plants found growing in the national forest are so contaminated with dangerous pesticides that law enforcement officers can’t go in and cut them down.
That leaves Dr. Mourad Gabriel from the Integral Ecology Research Center — who works to clean up forestland damaged by illegal grows — looking for environmentally friendly alternatives.
He notes that simply leaving the plants runs the risk that the tainted plants will still be harvested and consumed.
Also, “they’re still sucking water” and posing a risk to downstream water users, Dr. Gabriel said.
To eradicate heavily contaminated plants, law enforcement officers must don so much personal protective equipment that overheating becomes a concern. For one highly contaminated site near Plummer Peak in Trinity County, an Army hazmat team was brought in.
In 100-degree heat in a hazmat suit, “you sweat gallons in an hour,” Dr. Gabriel said.
For each grow, law enforcement agencies make the call of what level of protection is needed based on what they find at the scene.
Of great concern is the increasing use of the U.S. banned pesticide Carbofuran, as well as a number of other chemicals restricted in their use.
According to a bulletin from the Central Valley California High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, Carbofuran is extremely toxic to humans and other vertebrates and is increasingly encountered in illegal marijuana grow sites within California.
There are indications that illegal marijuana growers intentionally use Carbofuran at grow sites to discourage or delay eradication of their crops by law enforcement, according to the bulletin.
Dr. Gabriel said, “Where you see a green, health vibrant herbaceous plant like marijuana and see it coated in pink these are huge visual cues.”
“There’s got to be another method of eradicating plants safely for the officers, the environment and any users that participate in black market consumption,” he said.
That’s why not all the over 4,000 plants found in a trespass grow south of Rays Peak in the Hyampom area in July were eradicated.
Gabriel experimented with about 10 plants at the large grow using a solution of organic household vinegar and saltwater. This mixture is used on organic farms for weed control, he noted.
“You just put a little bit on the plant and it desiccates them,” he said.
If it works, deer and elk won’t browse on the dead plants which also won’t be taking up water, he noted.
Some of the other plants were left standing and untreated for control purposes. The site will be revisited to see if the method worked.
Two men were arrested in that grow and have been indicted by a federal grand jury.
From the Trinity County Sheriff’s Office, Sgt. Nate Trujillo said finding a way to kill off the plants that is more hands-off without hurting the environment or animals would be a big help. Exposure to contaminants at the gardens is a constant concern.
“Each officer on our team has to go through special testing,” Trujillo said. “We’ve all been trained in what are the symptoms.”
No Trinity County officers have been sickened by pesticides working in grows, he said, but there have been incidents elsewhere.
In August 2018, six members of a team eradicating a grow site on the El Dorado National Forest in California were sickened and required treatment at a hospital. Medical tests confirmed Carbofuran exposure.
Trujillo said officers look for signs of illegal pesticide use, which could be pink Carbofuran applied directly to the plants. Or, the pesticide could be in the original container. Sometimes it’s disguised in a Gatorade bottle. The teams also try to take along experts — Dr. Gabriel or his crew or Trinity County Environmental Health for field testing.
Cut plants are flown out to be destroyed later, but “if the site is contaminated then we leave,” Trujillo said, and a crew comes in later to quarantine the area.