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Many who tend plants are illgeal immigrants; farms boobytrapped

   PORTLAND (AP) — It’s autumn and the crops are in, but for the state’s marijuana growers, more of what may be Oregon’s most lucrative harvest didn’t make it to market.
   The Oregon Department of Justice says a record 245,000 plants were pulled up this year, more than double the 120,000 a year before.
   While authorities are getting better at finding where marijuana grows, said Don Nelson, who tracks the issue for the department, growers are getting smarter too.
   “We’re adapting. We’re getting more flight time,” he said, and added that Oregon is getting more federal drug enforcement money.
   “The backbone of our effort is the helicopters from the Oregon National Guard,” he said, plus better shared intelligence.
   “More intelligence equals more marijuana plants,” he said, adding that more flight time likely would do the same.
   But intelligence works both ways. The plants are usually identifiable from the air by pattern and a distinctive shade of green.
   “Now they’re getting more sophisticated as to how they plant them,” he said. “They plant them under trees and in no real pattern. There might be 20 plants here and 50 yards away there might be another 40.”
   The usual growing season runs from May to October, he said, but new seed is producing plants that can mature in just 90 days.
   He said the strength of the Oregon product “is not up there with BC bud (a powerful Canadian variety) but it’s not Mexican ditch weed, either.”
   Hunters sometimes find marijuana plots.
   Boobytrapped areas
   “It’s a safety thing,” Nelson said. “Many of these areas are boobytrapped, and most of these (growers) are armed.”
   In September, 18 law enforcement agents moved in on a growing area near Glendale in Douglas County and thought they found 4,000 plants. A wider search netted about 10,000 plants weighing 4 tons.
   The operation had its own irrigation system, deer nets and booby traps. But the people minding the crop had fled.
Tempting to illegal immigrants
   Nelson said those who tend the plants often are illegal immigrants and that about 30 were turned over to federal authorities this year. More, he said, may be in county jails.
   For an immigrant with few skills and fewer documents, it can be tempting.
   A Jackson County raid this summer netted 32,000 plants plus Jose Guadeloupe Gomez-Gonzalez, 22. He claimed, at least, that he was paid $1,500 a day to tend the plants. For a farm worker in rural Mexico, $6-$7 a day is a good wage.
   Northern California remains far and away the heaviest producer.
   “If something shows up in Northern California it’s not too long before you see it in Oregon,” said Jackson County Sheriff Mike Winters.
   “The (Mexican) cartels are growing it, and if they plant 100 gardens and 50 get taken off, they still make a lot of money.”
   Mexican cartels
   “It’s 90-10 Mexican cartels,” he said of the percentage of Mexican involvement. “That’s who’s doing it, that’s where the connections point to and that’s what it is.”
   Local growers don’t run the risk of crossing borders, and Winters says cuts in State Police have turned Interstate 5 into “a pipeline” for marijuana and more.
   For years, he said, “a few gardens slipped under the radar. But we’re getting very aggressive.”
   He said he plans to meet with sheriffs from Southern Oregon and Northern California to coordinate efforts and often-scant resources.
“They move in in May looking for sites and they’re there all summer,” he said of the growers, adding that environmental damage from treecutting and heavy fertilizer use runs to the hundreds of thousands of dollars by state estimates.
The U.S. Forest Service no longer helps fund marijuana eradication on federal land, he said.
Southern Oregon has no lock on the crop, and profits can be huge.
A mature plant grows to about six feet, said Lt. Curt Strickland, who heads the Douglas Interagency Narcotics Team. “If you have 1,000 plants you can make $1 million pretty easy.”
   Major raids were reported this year from Malheur County in Oregon’s southeast corner to the Coast Range, the Siskiyous and the Willamette Valley.
   Yamhill County Sheriff Jack Crabtree said he had never seen a summer with so much marijuana found in his region.
   Nelson said Jackson County led Oregon in confiscation, possibly because of its proximity to Northern California, where authorities estimate agents cut down between 1.5 million and 2 million plants last year and may have missed that many more.
   Oregon ranked 10th
   A 2006 report by the Bulletin of Cannabis Reform, which favors legalization, lists Oregon as the 10th-ranked marijuana-growing state. Washington comes in fifth. It listed marijuana as the most valuable cash crop in both states and 10 others.
   The figures estimated plantings in Oregon that year at about 967,000 but it is not clear if the doubling of confiscations meant more plantings, better enforcement or both.
   Estimates of the value of the crop are hard to pin down. In Corvallis this year, authorities estimated that the street-level price for a pound of marijuana at between $3,000 and $5,000. Sold an ounce at a time, it can bring much more.
   In the ground, estimates may assume all the plants are females, which contain THC, the active ingredient, while many are males with little value, the report said.
   Strickland and Nelson said pressure on California growers may be inducing some to move north.
   Jackson County, which faces severe budget problems, voted $800,000 this summer for infrared scanners, a new mobile command center and other gear to help protect deputies entering marijuana grows catch the growers before they flee. They got no federal help, Winters said.
   Catching the growers red-handed is difficult because, he said, many of them “know the trails out there better than we do.”

A Douglas County Sheriff Deputy holds a handful of punji sticks near a marijuana growing operation near Glendale, Ore. Local law enforcement searched for the growers, then cut and destroyed the growing plants in September. The sticks are planted in the ground, then covered, and meant to injure anyone stumbling into the growing area.
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