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Domestic Cannabis Cultivation Assessment 2007
February 2007

Cannabis Cultivation Trends

Outdoor Cultivation

Some Mexican DTOs are shifting cannabis cultivation away from intense eradication areas--even into eastern states--a shift that may enable these DTOs to further increase domestic cannabis cultivation. Mexican DTOs are relocating some of their operations to locations north and east of their principal operating areas in California, seemingly to avoid improved aerial detection and eradication in the state. This move will enable them to increase cultivation in remote areas that have never been cultivated. In 1999 Mexican DTOs began relocating some of their operations from northern California into Oregon, Washington, and central Idaho. In 2003 Mexican DTOs established more cannabis grow sites in Idaho and in areas east of the Mississippi River, such as remote areas of Arkansas and Georgia. Recently, these groups have established outdoor grow sites in other areas of Arizona and in western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee. Mexican cannabis growers operating large-scale grows east of the Mississippi River are increasingly being linked to Mexican DTOs operating in California and Mexico, suggesting a coordinated effort with respect to domestic cannabis cultivation by Mexican DTOs that now spans the United States. Many of these groups maintain direct contact and affiliation with larger DTOs in California and Mexico and maintain a level of coordination among operating areas, moving labor and materials to the various sites--even across the country--as needed.

Cannabis Cultivation in Arizona: An Increasing Concern

Elevated cannabis cultivation and eradication totals in Arizona in 2005 were somewhat surprising to some law enforcement officials because of the large amounts of Mexican marijuana available within the state. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Arizona High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA), law enforcement authorities are continuing to see an influx of cannabis cultivation operations in the state. In 2005 law enforcement authorities seized 115,215 plants from seven sites in the Coconino and Tonto Forests, according to NFS data. As of November 30, 2006, approximately 21 cannabis cultivation operations and a total of 72,549 plants were eradicated from Arizona national forests. Moreover, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service, approximately 12 of these sites were tended by Mexican foreign nationals. Despite the apparent decline in the number of plants seized between 2005 and 2006, the number of sites eradicated increased, and the area in which operations were eradicated expanded to cover three national forests (see Maps 4 and 5 in Appendix B). NFS data indicate that in 2006, 21 cultivation sites were eradicated in national forests in Arizona: 17 in Tonto, 2 in Prescott, and 2 in Coconino.

Mexican DTOs' extensive use of public lands for cannabis cultivation is increasing, even in areas that generally are not considered conducive to planting and growing cannabis. Mexican DTOs commonly grow cannabis in remote areas of public lands, where there is limited law enforcement presence. The occurrence of cannabis cultivation on public lands has increased significantly over the past several years, largely the result of increased domestic cultivation operations by Mexican DTOs. In 2005 cannabis cultivation on National Forest System (NFS) lands nationwide rose sharply, reaching the highest levels ever observed by law enforcement--a 49.6 percent increase from 744,276 plants eradicated in 2004 to 1,113,446 plants in 2005. This trend continued in 2006 as eradication rose an additional 26 percent between 2005 and 2006 (1,403,023). More cannabis plants were eradicated in national forests in California than in any other state nationwide in 2006 (1,133,563, or 81 percent of total NFS eradications), with most plants eradicated within the mountainous areas of Mendocino National Forest of northern California (405,399), followed by San Bernardino National Forest (157,994). NFS also reports significant cannabis eradication in national forests beyond California, specifically in Daniel Boone National Forest in Kentucky (148,828); and in Tonto National Forest in Arizona (65,947). No Mexican DTO activity has been reported in Kentucky (see Table 6, and Map 6 in Appendix B).

Table 6. Top 10 National Forests for Eradication of Cannabis Plants on National Forest System Lands, 2006

National Forest State Total Plants Eradicated
1. Mendocino California 405,399
2. San Bernardino California 157,994
3. Daniel Boone Kentucky 148,828
4. Shasta-Trinity California 118,797
5. Sequoia California 89,585
6. Los Padres California 80,796
7. Tonto Arizona 65,947
8. Stanislaus California 65,072
9. Sierra California 60,866
10. Plumas California 55,673

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service.

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Following consecutive annual record-level eradication since 2004, some cultivators who previously limited their operations to areas with optimal weather, elevation, and slope characteristics have relocated to areas where growing conditions are less conducive to cannabis cultivation. For example, Department of the Interior (DOI) officials report that some cultivators are relocating from coastal areas that are well-suited for growing to California's inland foothills and more arid areas, planting under low-cover brush such as chaparral. Cultivators are also relocating to other nonconducive growing areas outside of California, including eastern Oregon, eastern Washington, eastern Idaho, and the western slope of the Rocky Mountains. Despite relocating to nontraditional growing areas, cultivators must maintain access to a water source. For instance, law enforcement reporting from San Bernardino County, California, indicates that a several-thousand-plant grow was found covering nearly 2 square miles after officials responded to a wildfire in Little Morongo Canyon. Although this area is particularly arid, the grow site was within a mile of a natural spring. Law enforcement officials expect that grow sites will continue to be established by cultivators at remote sites in nontypical growing areas as eradication efforts continue in traditional growing areas.

Mexican DTOs in California are producing higher potency marijuana from cannabis cultivated in some large outdoor grow sites, the result of improved cultivation techniques. In 2006 law enforcement reporting from several agencies revealed that some Mexican DTOs that had previously produced marijuana with average THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol) levels of 2 or 3 percent from outdoor cultivated cannabis began achieving 8 to 12 percent THC levels by applying growing methods typically used by indoor growers of high potency cannabis. These DTOs typically use only select seeds from Mexico, prepare the seedlings in greenhouses, plant the seedlings outdoors before late April, separate male from female plants prior to pollination, and use high-nitrogen fertilizer. Moreover, these DTOs are increasingly using cloned starter plants (see text box), irrigation systems composed of black polyethylene (also known as PVC) drip lines extending to each plant, and pesticides. The higher potency marijuana produced from outdoor plants in California often is comparable in quality to Canada-produced BC Bud1 and commands twice the price of commercial-grade Mexican marijuana available in the region. Although data regarding the number of eradicated, higher potency outdoor grow sites are not available, this practice still appears to be limited but is likely to increase as other Mexican DTOs and U.S. Caucasian cannabis growers adopt these methods.

U.S. Public Lands

U.S. Department of the Interior
The DOI is the primary conservation agency in the United States and manages 525 million acres of land (23 percent of the land in the country), including 523 miles along the 3,987-mile U.S.-Canada border and 782 miles along the 1,952-mile U.S.-Mexico border. The DOI comprises five bureaus with law enforcement authority--the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), National Park Service (NPS), Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), and Bureau of Reclamation (BOR). Indian reservations are federal lands held in trust for the Indian Nations.

U.S. Department of Agriculture National Forest System
National Forest System lands, managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, consist of 191.6 million acres of federally owned reserves composed of 155 national forests and 22 national grasslands in 42 states and Puerto Rico. NFS lands adjoin approximately 700 miles of the U.S.-Canada border and nearly 60 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Cloned Starter Plants

Cloned starter plants enable cannabis cultivators to select higher quality plants and avoid male/female pollination, thereby raising potential THC content. Cloning a cannabis plant is accomplished by simply taking a cutting of a select plant, allowing the cutting to sprout roots, and then planting it as a seedling, thereby creating a plant of the same genetic makeup as the parent plant. The use of clones also ensures that the plants will be well-established with a root system when planted, thereby increasing the chance of a successful maturation process. Cloned starter plants are increasingly being grown in California and Oregon and, to a lesser extent, in Appalachian states, including Kentucky and Tennessee.

Outdoor cannabis cultivators are adapting their cultivation and harvesting methods in order to maximize profits and reduce the risk of eradication. In 2006 law enforcement officials in several areas of the country, particularly California and Tennessee, reported that cultivators were changing their cultivation process from a single planting to two-crop plantings with shortened growing cycles. Cultivators achieve two growing cycles by planting specific cannabis strains that mature faster or by planting seedlings earlier in the spring. Cultivators in California, for example, are planting cannabis that buds earlier than most varieties and matures as early as June or July. Cannabis that is cultivated in the spring is harvested in early July, and the plot is replanted, allowing for an additional harvest in September or October. Additionally, law enforcement officials have reported that cultivators are harvesting as many plants as practical, including marginally mature plants, immediately prior to the height of eradication season or before eradication efforts move into the area, in order to avoid the risk of an entire crop seizure (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Crop harvested prior to eradication efforts in Napa County, California, September 2006.

Photo showing a crop harvested prior to eradication efforts in Napa County, California, September 2006.


Outdoor cannabis cultivation by Caucasian criminal groups in western states is relatively low compared with that of Mexican DTOs; however, cultivation by Caucasian growers in Appalachian states is high and may be increasing. While Mexican DTOs dominate cannabis cultivation in western states, Caucasian criminal groups and independent growers control most cannabis cultivation in the Appalachian Region. Most of the criminal groups operating grow sites in Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia are typically composed of three to eight Caucasian males who are related along family lines. In fact, many of these family-based groups have been involved in marijuana cultivation and trafficking for decades, spanning several generations. Moreover, cannabis cultivation by Caucasian growers is often accepted by the local populace as a means for supplementing incomes in economically depressed Appalachian communities. Eradication efforts in many areas of Appalachia have increased in recent years; however, cultivation also appears to be increasing as cultivators relocate to areas where eradication efforts are less intense.

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Indoor Cultivation

Domestic indoor cannabis cultivation is increasing in some areas of the country as growers attempt to avoid outdoor eradication and attain higher profits through production of indoor-grown, high potency marijuana. According to law enforcement reporting, vigorous outdoor cannabis eradication has caused many marijuana producers in areas of California and Tennessee to relocate indoors where production is more concealed (see text box). In addition to a reduced risk of detection, indoor cannabis cultivators benefit from higher profits because cultivation is a year-round process with four to six harvests per year and controlled conditions that enable growers to produce high quality marijuana that commands higher prices in most drug markets. For example, according to drug price data from the National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC) December 2006 National Illicit Drug Prices, domestic midgrade marijuana grown outdoors in Los Angeles sold for $700 to $750 per pound, whereas high potency marijuana sold for $2,500 to $6,000 per pound. This price difference is common in drug markets throughout the country. These factors have contributed to the sharp increase in indoor cultivation reported by law enforcement, evidenced by a 71 percent increase in indoor plant eradication from 2001 (236,128 plants) to 2006 (403,322 plants). Moreover, the number of indoor sites seized increased 38 percent from 2001 (2,379 sites) to 2006 (3,286 sites).

Indoor Grow Sites

Indoor cultivation sites range from a single closet to entire houses or buildings that are converted into sophisticated grow operations. Indoor cannabis cultivators frequently employ advanced agricultural practices such as plant cloning; hydroponics; automatic light metering, irrigation, and fertilizing; and refined insecticides to enhance the rate of growth. Hydroponics is a particularly effective cultivation method, especially at indoor locations; however, it is not always preferred by growers over traditional soil cultivation. In fact, law enforcement reporting indicates that soil cultivation is preferred over hydroponics by some groups, including Asian DTOs operating indoor grows in Washington and Cuban DTOs operating indoor grows in southern Florida.

Many Canada-based Asian DTOs that cultivate cannabis at indoor grow sites are relocating from Canada to the United States. Canada-based Asian groups (primarily ethnic Vietnamese and Chinese groups) are operating an increasing number of indoor grow sites within the United States, predominantly in the Pacific Northwest and throughout much of California. However, indoor grow sites are emerging in northeastern states, including those in New England. To this end, preliminary law enforcement reporting suggests that some of the Asian-operated indoor grows in New England are linked to Asian organizations based in Canada. The emergence of Asian-operated indoor grows in northeastern states parallels the recent appearance of grow sites controlled by Asian DTOs in eastern Canada (Ontario and Quebec) reported by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP)--Asian-operated grow sites typically have been located in western Canada (British Colombia). The extent of this activity has been difficult for law enforcement to establish, since most Asian DTOs that cultivate cannabis in the United States are tight-knit, family-based groups that are difficult to infiltrate. Asian DTOs often conceal their indoor operations by purchasing or renting houses, modifying the structure for the purpose of cultivating high-grade cannabis, and quickly abandoning the premises after harvesting only four to six high potency crops. In many instances, these DTOs spend thousands of dollars to modify and equip their indoor grow sites. For example, Asian DTOs purchase and install advanced hydroponic growing equipment such as grow lights, automatically timed watering and fertilizing systems, and exhaust systems with large charcoal HEPA filters. Sophisticated operations often bypass electric meters, thereby eliminating high-energy usage readings, large electricity bills, and possible law enforcement scrutiny.

Seizure of Asian Indoor Grow Operations in Elk Grove, California

On August 29, 2006, law enforcement authorities reported that over 10,000 marijuana plants were seized from 14 Elk Grove, California, area residences as part of an investigation into Asian DTO-operated indoor marijuana growing operations in the San Francisco Bay area. According to DEA, the electricity to each home had been rewired to bypass the electric meter, thereby creating a significant fire hazard (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Hazardous electrical diversion in an Elk Grove, California, indoor cannabis grow site.

Photo showing a hazardous electrical diversion (circuit breaker and electrical outlets) in an Elk Grove, California, indoor cannabis grow site.

City of Elk Grove, California, Police Department

Cannabis cultivation in Florida has increased dramatically in recent years, led by an increasing number of indoor grow sites operated by Cuban DTOs and criminal organizations. Indoor cannabis cultivation occurs in many counties throughout Florida (see Map 7 in Appendix B) and greatly exceeds that of outdoor cultivation in Florida, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE). The predominance of indoor grows in Florida is evidenced by the number of indoor seizures (36,172 plants) compared with outdoor seizures (10,354 plants) in 2006 (see Table 7). The FDLE further reports that the number of indoor cannabis grows operated by Cuban organizations in South Florida has increased sharply and is the leading cause of the increase in indoor grow seizures between 2001 (210) and 2006 (384). Cuban organizations reportedly operate indoor grows throughout Broward, Collier, Hendry, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, and St. Lucie Counties in Florida. Cuban-operated indoor grows are not highly sophisticated but are somewhat advanced, often utilizing partial residence grows, single-room air conditioners or multiple air conditioning-units concealed behind fences, and insulated walls and windows designed to conceal the heat signature produced by grow lights.

Table 7. Number of Cannabis Plants Eradicated in Florida at Indoor and Outdoor Grow Sites, 2001-2006

  2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006
Indoor 15,151 19,506 21,442 21,879 45,217 36,172
Outdoor 13,055 18,348 16,302 6,127 29,646 10,354
Total 28,206 37,854 37,744 28,006 74,863 46,526

Source: Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program.

End Note

1 BC Bud, which originally referred to sinsemilla grown in British Columbia, has become synonymous with high-grade marijuana from Canada. The THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol) content of BC Bud ranges from an average of 10 to 15 percent but can be as high as 30 percent.

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