Sheriffs raid illegal marijuana sites on Mt. Madonna

During an undercover operation that snuffed out an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 cannabis trees from four illegal sites, law enforcement officials raided “what looks like a football field of marijuana plants – all in a row, standing in the sunshine” Wednesday afternoon in the forested heart of Mt. Madonna County Park. So far, no suspects have been named.

The effort involved five deputies from the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office Marijuana Eradication Team, who worked in conjunction with a dozen other officials from the U.S. Forrest Service and National Guard involved with C.A.M.P – the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting. The California Department of Justice Drug Enforcement Agency and California Department of Fish and Game also play a role in localized eradication efforts. The group rendezvoused near the Sheriff’s Office Command Post at the Mt. Madonna Ranger Station Off Pole Line Road in Gilroy.

Commander Neil Cuthbert with the Department of Justice, who participated in Wednesday’s reconnaissance, was unable to provide an estimated price tag on the contraband vegetation – but pointed out one pound of marijuana can sell for anywhere between $1,500 to $2,000 on the street. Each plant yields about one pound of product, give or take, according to Michael Doty, Capt. of Special Operations with the SCC Sheriff’s Office.

Officials had to be airlifted to the rustic site by helicopter, which transported personnel two-by-two. As the growing sites were remote and offered no safe landing spot for the aircraft, pairs were harnessed to a cable extension, then dangled midair as they were flown and dropped off in the middle of the forest. The eradication teams spent 45 minutes at each of the four sites, two of which are located on private land and two of which are located on county land, according to Cuthbert. He described the clandestine cultivation as a “sophisticated operation” with water pumps and generators. Photos provided by the Sherriff’s office show a verdant hillside bursting with green plants in plain site, along with a campsite stashed with food and cooking equipment.

Besides the fact most remote growers don’t possess a medical license and are breaking the law, Cuthbert pointed out illegal operations have negative effects on the environment. Rain washes fertilizers and pesticides into water tables, he said, and clearing trees to make way for gardens disrupts natural habitats. Many many growers are also armed, he reminded, and pose a threat to unsuspecting hikers. When asked what protocol is for disposing illegally cultivated marijuana, Cuthbert said sometimes plants are buried on site, while other times plants are taken to a landfill. It’s usually up to the county, he said, and in this case, he doesn’t know what the SCC Sheriff’s Office plans to do.

“Gardens are popping up all over the place,” said Doty. “We’ll eradicate one, then next season come back and it’s still there.” From January to June, Doty explained officers begin scouting isolated areas that may attract marijuana growers, periodically checking up on the same areas for any evidence of a garden. Once specific spots are under their radar, Doty said officials will routinely survey the region in an attempt to identify possible culprits before eradicating the garden. A federal grant provided through the Department of Justice provides funding for two full-time SCC detectives to pursue illegal cultivation and trafficking of marijuana, Doty said. As for who discovered the Mt. Madonna sites, neither Doty nor Cuthbert were sure, but confirmed the area has been under watch since February.

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