The U.S. attorney for California’s Eastern District said Tuesday he is focusing on shutting down illegal marijuana grows, not state-licensed operations.

In some of his first public comments on the state of cannabis enforcement in California, McGregor Scott outlined priorities that hew closely to those detailed in the now-rescinded Obama-era “Cole memo”: illegal grows on federal land, cartels dealing in marijuana and interstate trafficking.

McGregor Scott

“The reality of the situation is that there is so much black-market marijuana in California that we could go after just the black market and never get there,” Scott told reporters in Sacramento at a multi-agency discussion about how illegal grows on public land affect the environment.

“Right now our priorities are to focus on what have historically been our law enforcement priorities. … This issue, the public lands issues, obviously touches on all three of those,” said Scott, a former Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe partner who earlier ran the U.S. attorney’s office during the George W. Bush administration.

The prosecutor’s informal guidance is similar to more detailed priorities outlined recently by Oregon U.S. Attorney Billy Williams. Like Scott, Williams would not specifically rule out charging state-legal operations with federal drug law violations. But he did say his office would target illegal grows abusing pesticides, diverting water and generating violence.

California’s 34-county Eastern District stretches from Kern County north to the Oregon border. It covers 87,000 square miles, of which 45 percent is federal land. Illegal grows in public forests and their resulting damage to watersheds and wildlife have been a problem in California long before state voters approved regulated marijuana cultivation and sales in 2016. Law enforcement seized 1.4 million marijuana plants last year on federal lands in California, the most by far of any state, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

The problem has only worsened in recent years, Scott said, as drug cartels have smuggled U.S.-banned chemicals to grow sites to kill plant-eating animals. State marijuana legalization has not had much effect either way, he said.

“There is a manifest black market in California,” Scott said. “It is of biblical proportions and what we’re talking about here today is a classic example of that market—people who have no intent of ever entering the legal system that has been created and California has attempted to establish.”

The federal government has appropriated $2.5 million to the Forest Service to eradicate illegal grows; 90 percent of that money will go to California, Scott said. Eastern District prosecutors have charged black-market growers with environmental degradation as well as drug crimes. But those prosecutions have been hampered by federal laws that make the environmental crimes misdemeanors, not felonies, Scott said.

“We need to change the laws in that regard so that felonies can be brought … because of the severe nature of the damage and the threat that they pose,” he said.

 

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