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Methamphetamine production in California has declined significantly since 2004, largely as a result of successful law enforcement operations and regulatory efforts in the United States and Mexico to control precursor chemicals. While laboratory seizures have decreased overall, most of the methamphetamine production in California still takes place in the Central Valley HIDTA region. In 2008, 56 percent of the methamphetamine laboratory-related seizures in California (208 of 374) occurred within the HIDTA region, according to the California Department of Toxic Substances Control. (See Table 1.) Methamphetamine laboratory cleanup costs in the Central Valley HIDTA counties totaled $584,667, which accounts for approximately 57 percent of the $1,026,767 spent by the state of California to remediate methamphetamine laboratories and dumpsites in 2008. Seizures of methamphetamine laboratories capable of producing 2 or more pounds per production cycle increased from five laboratories seized in 2007 to seven in 2008. (See Table 2.) Additionally, in 2008, officials in Merced and Stanislaus Counties reported increased numbers of laboratories, dumpsites, and abandoned laboratory sites in predominantly rural and agricultural areas.

Table 1. Methamphetamine Clandestine Laboratory Removals in Central Valley HIDTA Counties, 2004-2008

Year Items Seized Fresno Kern Kings Madera Merced Sacramento San Joaquin Shasta Stanislaus Tulare HIDTA Total CA State Total
2004 Abandonments* 14 2 0 22 77 5 39 2 72 9 242 359
Laboratories 16 12 2 3 21 21 27 7 38 6 153 605
Total 30 14 2 25 98 26 66 9 110 15 395 964
Cleanup Costs $53,204 $39,905 $3,888 $44,013 $217,078 $53,741 $186,602 $11,505 $236,150 $59,302 $905,388 $2,053,325
2005 Abandonments 17 3 0 5 92 5 22 1 96 10 251 316
Laboratories 7 3 0 3 25 8 14 2 25 3 90 326
Total 24 6 0 8 117 13 36 3 121 13 341 642
Cleanup Costs $39,298 $13,468 NA $15,234 $231,371 $22,407 $69,081 $4,572 $264,773 $29,984 $690,188 $1,265,784
2006 Abandonments 26 0 1 3 41 3 10 1 75 9 169 224
Laboratories 4 2 0 0 10 10 21 3 10 8 68 252
Total 30 2 1 3 51 13 31 4 85 17 237 476
Cleanup Costs $64,646 $3,281 $2,434 $7,217 $99,400 $25,609 $64,672 $7,286 $146,106 $34,704 $473,355 $1,005,257
2007 Abandonments 30 2 1 12 73 0 6 0 22 5 151 189
Laboratories 5 6 2 1 2 6 8 2 5 2 39 163
Total 35 8 3 13 75 6 14 2 27 7 190 352
Cleanup Costs $68,313 $17,630 $3,831 $26,950 $157,883 $9,738 $20,925 $2,419 $49,693 $12,014 $369,396 $772,971
2008 Abandonments 9 5 0 14 68 1 8 1 43 8 157 190
Laboratories 5 1 0 3 12 3 8 0 16 3 51 184
Total 14 6 0 17 80 4 16 1 59 11 208 374
Cleanup Costs $25,703 $24,327 NA $54,108 $262,738 $7,778 $42,677 $1,280 $136,934 $29,122 $584,667 $1,026,767

Source: California Department of Toxic Substances Control.
* An abandonment is either a dumpsite or an incomplete laboratory; i.e, the seizure of chemical containers, glassware, and equipment.
NA--Not applicable.

Table 2. Methamphetamine Laboratories Seized in the Central Valley HIDTA Region, by Yield per Production Cycle, 2004-2008

  2004 2005 2006 2007 2008
Less than 2 pounds 86 48 36 41 31
2-9 pounds 22 2 2 0 3
More than 10 pounds 10 13 7 5 4
Total 118 63 45 46 38

Source: National Seizure System. Data run on January 30, 2009.

Strong pseudoephedrine import restrictions and law enforcement pressure in Mexico have contributed to a decrease in Mexican methamphetamine production, the primary source of the drug in the Central Valley HIDTA area. Because it is difficult for Mexican DTOs to obtain sufficient supplies of pseudoephedrine in Mexico, law enforcement and intelligence officials report that some of these DTOs are relocating their production operations to California and acquiring ephedrine and pseudoephedrine through large-scale smurfing operations in southern and central California. Hispanic street gangs and other individuals in the Central Valley HIDTA region often organize these smurfing operations and then sell the precursor chemicals to methamphetamine producers. In fact, the HIDTA reports that the methamphetamine laboratories seized in its area are producing methamphetamine with ephedrine and pseudoephedrine acquired primarily through smurfing. Moreover, FMTF reports that its officers have seized gallon-size plastic freezer bags of pseudoephedrine tablets that were collected during smurfing operations based in central and southern California and have encountered similar bags containing residue from pseudoephedrine tablets at laboratory dumpsites throughout their jurisdiction.

Ephedrine and Pseudoephedrine Smurfing

Ephedrine and pseudoephedrine smurfing is a method used by some methamphetamine traffickers to acquire large quantities of precursor chemicals. Methamphetamine producers purchase the chemicals in quantities at or below legal thresholds from multiple retail locations. Methamphetamine producers often enlist the assistance of several friends or associates in smurfing operations to increase the speed of the operation and the quantity of chemicals acquired. The Fresno Methamphetamine Task Force (FMTF) reports that much of the pseudoephedrine evidence discovered at superlabs and dumpsites in its jurisdiction can be traced directly to smurfing operations, and most of this evidence can be traced back to smurfing operations based in central and southern California.

Empty Pseudoephedrine Blisterpacks Seized at a Methamphetamine Dumpsite in the Central Valley, California

Photo of empty pseudoephedrine blisterpacks.

California Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement

Source: Fresno Methamphetamine Task Force.

According to law enforcement and intelligence reporting, large-scale methamphetamine producers in the Central Valley HIDTA are using hypophosphorous acid instead of red phosphorus as the primary reagent in their pseudoephedrine reduction operations. Law enforcement and intelligence reporting indicates that hypophosphorous acid (a clear liquid) is easier to smuggle than red phosphorus (a crimson powder) because hypophosphorous acid can easily be mistaken for water or other liquids, and law enforcement pressure on red phosphorus smugglers, as well as restrictions on the sale and distribution of red phosphorus, has made the chemical difficult to obtain. The increased use of hypophosphorous acid is evidenced by increased seizures of 5-gallon plastic gas cans filled with hypophosphorous acid at superlabs and dumpsites in the region. Most large-scale production operations are located in very rural areas--typically on rented property, particularly farms--for an extended period. The operators produce methamphetamine continuously until they believe the location is no longer secure.

Use of Hypophosphorous Acid in Methamphetamine Production

Hypophosphorous acid is a clear liquid, and it is often concealed in empty water bottles at methamphetamine laboratories. This is a serious law enforcement and public safety concern because the content of the bottles could easily be mistaken for water and consumed by an unsuspecting victim.

Water Bottles Containing Hypophosphorous Acid Seized at a Methamphetamine Laboratory Site in the Central Valley, California

Photo of empty water bottles.

California Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement

Source: Fresno Methamphetamine Task Force.

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Methamphetamine Dumpsites

To evade law enforcement detection, methamphetamine producers also burn, shred, or bury the waste from their laboratory sites because they are aware that investigators examine material at dumpsites to identify operators and the locations of their laboratories. This practice is a significant environmental and wildfire hazard.

A Burned Methamphetamine Laboratory Site Seized in the Central Valley, California

Photo of a burned methamphetamine dumpsite.

California Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement

Source: Fresno Methamphetamine Task Force.

The Central Valley HIDTA region is one of the most significant cannabis cultivation areas in the nation, and in some areas cultivation is increasing. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program (DCE/SP) data, in 2008 more than 5.3 million cannabis plants were eradicated from illicit outdoor and indoor grow operations in California; 1,256,885 of these plants were seized in the Central Valley HIDTA region. DCE/SP data also show that outdoor cultivation has increased significantly over the last 5 years, primarily in Fresno, Kern, Shasta, and Tulare Counties. (See Table 3 and Table 4; see Figure 2.)

Table 3. Top-Ranking States for the Number of Cannabis Plants Eradicated, 2004-2008

2004 2005 2006 2007 2008
California 1,214,420 California 2,011,277 California 2,995,285 California 4,951,976 California 5,322,053
Kentucky 476,803 Kentucky 510,502 Kentucky 558,756 Kentucky 492,615 Washington 580,415
Tennessee 416,012 Tennessee 440,362 Tennessee 483,271 Washington 295,573 Tennessee 539,370
Hawaii 379,644 Hawaii 255,113 Hawaii 201,100 Oregon 277,766 Kentucky 353,170
Washington 134,474 Washington 136,165 Washington 144,181 Tennessee 178,322 West Virginia 146,553
Oregon 62,621 Arizona 113,523 Oregon 113,608 Hawaii 139,089 North Carolina 105,200

Source: Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program.

Table 4. Cannabis Plants Seized in the Central Valley HIDTA Region, 2004-2008

County Outdoor Plants Indoor Plants
2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008
Fresno 69,364 137,600 85,761 181,407 172,302 0 0 7,160 2,656 1,340
Kern 21,283 61,726 44,510 146,586 159,336 0 1,349 196 998 40
Kings 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Madera 27,417 12,159 8,576 37,652 0 0 0 0 0 0
Merced 10,388 2,145 1,949 58,537 22,266 172 1,393 628 299 798
Sacramento 369 0 0 0 0 0 0 16,901 0 0
San Joaquin 3,986 11,944 6,207 9,517 16,560 0 18 7,600 5,944 2,262
Shasta 70,458 218,384 237,299 356,462 407,386 113 24 12 64 284
Stanislaus 0 21,962 2,751 0 0 0 2,561 3,664 1,636 0
Tulare 150,865 157,441 65,912 330,621 474,215 167 69 26 365 96
Total 354,130 623,361 452,965 1,120,782 1,252,065 452 5,414 36,187 11,962 4,820

Source: Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program.

Figure 2. Cannabis Plants Eradicated in the Central Valley HIDTA, by County, 2008*

Map showing the number of cannabis plants eradicated in Central Valley HIDTA in 2008, broken down by site, national forest, and county.

* Source: Drug Enforcement Administration San Francisco Field Division, Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program; California's Campaign Against Marijuana Planting.

Mexican DTOs represent the primary organizational threat with regard to cannabis cultivation and marijuana production operations in the Central Valley HIDTA region. Mexican DTOs operate a majority of the large outdoor grow sites that average between 5,000 and 7,000 cannabis plants. They generally establish such grow sites in counties that encompass extensive remote locations, public lands, and rural areas. Mexican-controlled cannabis grow sites are commonly seized on public and National Forest System lands, including portions of national forests that lie within the region. According to the U.S. Forest Service, the Los Padres, Sequoia, and Sierra National Forests rank among the top 10 national forests for eradication of cannabis plants on National Forest System lands.

Mexican DTOs typically employ illegal aliens to tend crop sites, provide protection from intruders (including law enforcement officers), and harvest the cannabis. Most workers at Mexican-operated grow sites in the region are illegal aliens from Mexico, particularly the state of Michoacán. Law enforcement officials have noted that cannabis cultivators are increasingly arming themselves to protect their operations, as evidenced by an increased presence of weapons at grow sites. As such, cannabis cultivation operations are a threat to the safety of law enforcement officers as well as unwitting visitors, hunters, and hikers.

Asian DTOs and criminal groups also maintain some outdoor marijuana grow sites in the region, but on a much smaller scale than Mexican DTOs. These groups, primarily Hmong criminal groups, cultivate cannabis outdoors, typically in agricultural areas of the region. These groups employ individuals who work in the local agricultural industry to cultivate the plants on behalf of the criminal group. Asian criminal groups' cannabis grows are often interspersed among legitimate crops such as bitter melon, strawberries, and grapes; because the cannabis plants are spread among the other foliage, they are difficult to differentiate from the legitimate crops.

The environmental damage caused by outdoor cannabis cultivation, particularly on public lands, is extensive. According to the National Forest System and California's Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP), law enforcement officers are increasingly encountering dumpsites of highly toxic insecticides, chemical repellants, and other poisons. These toxic chemicals enter and contaminate ground water, pollute watersheds, kill fish and other wildlife, and eventually enter residential water supplies. Redirecting natural water sources leads to erosion and impacts native vegetation.

Law enforcement reporting indicates that some Asian DTOs and local Caucasian growers are moving their outdoor operations to indoor grows to avoid intensified outdoor eradication efforts and reap higher profits through year-round production of indoor-grown, high-potency marijuana. HIDTA officials also report that some cannabis cultivators exploit California's state medical marijuana laws (see text box) to conduct illegal grow operations that exceed the cultivation and possession limits and to cultivate cannabis for personal use and illicit distribution.

California Proposition 215

California Proposition 215 (The Compassionate Use Act of 1996, Health and Safety Code, §11362.5) allows patients and primary caregivers to possess or cultivate marijuana for medical treatment based on a physician recommendation--exempting them from criminal laws that otherwise prohibit possession or cultivation of marijuana under state law. Legal protections are also provided to physicians who recommend the use of marijuana for medical treatment. Under Proposition 215, marijuana for medicinal use can be obtained without a prescription. Patients may possess 8 ounces and 6 mature or 12 immature cannabis plants; possession of additional amounts of marijuana is permitted under this plan based on medical necessity.

In November 2008 the California Supreme Court further defined the role of a primary caregiver in the People v. Roger William Mentch, S148204, Ct. App. 6 H02878, Santa Cruz County, Superior Court, No. 07429. To qualify as a primary caregiver (and, consequently, to be legally permitted to provide marijuana), an individual must render assistance to provide daily life necessities. The Supreme Court opined that the defendant, whose caregiving consisted principally of supplying marijuana, did not qualify as a primary caregiver under Proposition 215.

Source: California Secretary of State.

Indoor cannabis cultivators typically establish grow sites in multiple residences, often using hydroponics technology, sophisticated lighting, and irrigation systems. Indoor growers prefer the controlled environment, which allows them to avoid intensified outdoor eradication efforts while achieving higher profits because of the year-round cultivation season--a new crop of higher-potency marijuana can be turned out every 90 days. Cannabis cultivators who operate large-scale indoor grows often modify electrical circuitry in the houses or bypass meters, creating hazardous conditions that can result in electrical shock or fire. They often use exhaust systems that are insufficient to vent the carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide generated from cultivation activities. As a result of the prolonged high humidity at indoor grow sites, the buildings that contain them can be rendered uninhabitable as a result of the growth of toxic molds. Additionally, grow sites are often booby-trapped to ward off thieves and law enforcement officers.

Crack distributors throughout the Central Valley HIDTA region frequently convert powder cocaine to crack; however, crack conversion is a much lower concern to law enforcement and drug treatment providers in the region than the threat posed by methamphetamine and marijuana production.

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The Central Valley HIDTA region is a national-level transshipment center for illicit drugs smuggled to, through, and from the HIDTA region to U.S. drug markets. Interstate 5 is routinely exploited by drug traffickers to provide direct access to drug sources located in other areas of California as well as in Mexico and Canada. (See Figure 1 in Preface.) Although most drugs remain in the area for local distribution, many of the drug shipments from Mexico--as well as methamphetamine and marijuana produced within the HIDTA--are regularly transported from the region in private and commercial vehicles, primarily on I-80, to drug markets in the Great Lakes, Mid-Atlantic, New York/New Jersey, Southeast, and West Central Regions of the United States. Drug traffickers typically use vehicles with complex fabricated compartments that are often welded into body frames, gas tanks, and passenger areas and have electronic or magnetic switches that require several steps to open.

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