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California Central District Drug Threat Assessment
May 2001


According to the U.S. Attorney for the Central District, both marijuana and hashish pose significant threats, with marijuana being the most available. The Los Angeles HIDTA reports 1,473 marijuana-related law enforcement actions during FY1999, representing 10 percent of all documented drug-related events for the fiscal year and a 33 percent increase over FY1998 marijuana-related law enforcement actions.

Most of the marijuana available in the Central District is produced in Mexico, but cannabis is also cultivated throughout the district. Mexican marijuana is generally the least expensive because of its availability and lower THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) content, which is approximately 4 to 6 percent. In contrast, domestically produced marijuana--particularly that produced from hydroponic indoor grow operations--has a higher THC content (24 to 26%) and is more expensive. High quality marijuana from Canada ("BC Bud") is also available.



According to CADDS, marijuana treatment admissions increased 13 percent, from 5,284 in FY1998 to 5,961 in FY1999. Treatment admissions continued to increase in FY2000, as the number seeking treatment jumped 9 percent, to 6,494. (See Table 2.)

This increase, however, is nowhere near the rate of increase found on the national level. DAWN reports that the estimated number of ED marijuana/hashish mentions for the metropolitan area of Los Angeles-Long Beach remained relatively stable from 1993 (1,745) to 1995 (1,706). However, since 1995, ED mentions more than tripled to 5,473 in 1999.

ADAM reports the percentage of adult male arrestees testing positive for marijuana in Los Angeles increased from 19 percent in 1990 to 32 percent in 1999. Over that same period, the percentage of adult female arrestees testing positive for marijuana increased as well, from 10 percent to 21 percent. Despite these increases, Los Angeles ranked below the national average in 1999 for both male (40%) and female (25%) adult arrestees testing positive for marijuana/hashish.

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Marijuana is readily available throughout the Central District. The Los Angeles HIDTA reports that the THC content for Mexican marijuana ranges between 4 and 6 percent, while domestic marijuana's THC content reaches levels as high as 26 percent. The DEA Los Angeles Field Division reports that marijuana of Canadian origin, with a potency of up to 28 percent, is readily available in Los Angeles.

The wholesale prices of low-grade Mexican marijuana and high-grade domestic marijuana have remained stable. Mexican marijuana typically sells for between $330 and $500 per pound. The price of domestically produced marijuana ranges between $2,550 and $6,000 per pound. BC Bud, a hybrid type of cannabis grown in British Columbia, Canada, sells for approximately $6,000 per pound.

At the street level, the retail price for Mexican marijuana in the Los Angeles HIDTA ranges between $60 and $80 per ounce; the price for domestic midgrade marijuana (4-10% THC) ranges between $200 and $250 per ounce; and the price of domestic marijuana ranges between $400 and $600 per ounce. The DEA Los Angeles Field Division reports the same prices.

The amount of marijuana seized in the Los Angeles HIDTA decreased by 18 percent, from 7,959 pounds in FY1997 to 6,459 pounds in FY1998. However, the amount of marijuana seized climbed to 7,724 pounds in FY1999, a 20 percent increase.

The USCS reports an increase in the amount of marijuana seized at ports in the Central District from FY1998 to FY1999. In fact, port seizures more than doubled from 8,930 pounds to 18,509 pounds over this period. The Port of Los Angeles accounted for the highest volume of marijuana seizures within the Los Angeles HIDTA. Of particular interest, however, is an apparent shift of activity to smaller ports within the area. During FY2000, the amount of marijuana seized at the ports of Hueneme and San Luis increased, while that seized at LAX and the Port of Los Angeles decreased. (See Table 3.)



There does not appear to be any evidence of violence related to the control of marijuana distribution within the district with the exception of the some gangs that distribute marijuana and other drugs at the retail level. Marijuana users are not prone to violence; however, outdoor cannabis growers sometimes use violent countermeasures to protect their crops. Some of these countermeasures include hanging fishhooks from tree branches, using animal traps and explosive devices, and stationing armed guards to intimidate and deter people from entering areas where cannabis is grown. U.S. Forest Service agents have reported exchanging gunfire with cannabis growers.

Indoor cannabis growers sometimes use countersurveillance measures to detect law enforcement activity. However, countermeasures that inflict physical harm on others have not been encountered with any regularity.

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Mexican cocaine organizations smuggle multiton quantities of marijuana into the United States and through the Central District. Large-scale domestic cannabis operations (in excess of 1,000 plants) have been encountered by law enforcement in suburban residential areas as well as in national forests. In 1999, a record 53,394 cannabis plants were discovered at 19 grow sites in the San Bernardino National Forest. The largest of these operations was a 23,000-plant grow discovered in August 1999. A U.S. Forest Service official estimated the grow to be 3 years old. 

Techniques in Cannabis Cultivation

Supercropping enables cannabis growers to double or triple their yield. This technique is cause for concern because current federal laws focus on the number of plants seized; 100 plants is the threshold for the mandatory minimum sentence. Supercropping allows cannabis growers to achieve a higher yield while staying under the 100-plant threshold.

Aeroponics is another relatively new method used to cultivate cannabis. Cannabis plants are suspended in the air by attaching the stems to some type of structure. Sprayers, similar to those found in the produce departments of supermarkets, are used to spray nutrients onto the roots. Timers are used to turn the sprayers on and off at set intervals.

Another advance in indoor cannabis cultivation is the manipulation of growing room conditions through the use of computers and multitask automatic controllers. Computers can be used to monitor development of the plants and environmental factors such as light, water, and temperature. Computers can also be used to maintain cultivation records and store customer information. Multitask automatic controllers are powered by electricity and usually are fully programmable, with timers and sensors to monitor and control the grow environment. The automated process is more economical and easier to use. Programmable controllers require less manpower during the growing phase and minimal oversight for the entire operation. Moreover, computers can be accessed from separate, remote sites, allowing cannabis growers to distance themselves from the growing operation.

Mexican DTOs run large-scale cannabis operations in the national forests of the Central District, sending crews from Mexico to tend cannabis crops. They also hire illegal immigrants to manage and watch over the cannabis cultivation sites. The growers make camp near the plots and live onsite until harvest is completed. Cultivating cannabis in remote areas of national forests reduces the risks and costs associated with smuggling marijuana across the Southwest Border. The use of public lands to cultivate cannabis is appealing to domestic growers because the risk of asset forfeiture is substantially minimized.

The Los Angeles HIDTA and the U.S. Attorney for the Central District report that domestic marijuana production threatens the district in several ways. There are social and economic costs of providing treatment and increased law enforcement. In addition, the existence of large-scale marijuana production sites in national forests endangers not only the wildlife and other natural resources but also the public. Visitors to national parks and forests run the risk of tripping boobytraps or encountering armed gangs that can lead to deadly consequences.

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Most of the marijuana encountered in the district is smuggled into the United States from Mexico. Commercial and personal vehicles are commonly used to transport marijuana into and out of the Central District. Marijuana is commonly smuggled into Southern California from Tijuana via the San Ysidro POE, from Mexicali via the Calexico POE, through the Otay Mesa and Tecate POEs. Interstates 5, 15, and 215, as well as various secondary roads in Southern California, are frequently used by traffickers to transport marijuana from Southern California into the Central District.

The availability of intermodal transportation provides a number of ways for drug traffickers to move drugs into and out of the district. California's extensive coastline, numerous coves, and major roads near the coast make maritime transport an ideal method of delivering marijuana and other drugs. The Los Angeles HIDTA reports that marijuana also may be transported by rail. Transcontinental and regional passenger rail lines and two major cargo rail lines service Los Angeles. Many of the regional routes connect the district to San Diego and the U.S.-Mexico border, while the transcontinental routes connect the district with other U.S. regions, Mexico, and Canada. There also are a number of regional and international airports in the district, including LAX, which is the third busiest passenger and cargo airport in the world.

Overnight mail and parcel services are also used to ship marijuana into and out of the Central District. By using commercial parcel services, smugglers can transport shipments practically anywhere with minimal cost and with the ability to track the status of parcels in transit.

Shipping via Parcel Services

In a federal grand jury indictment, 25 suspected members of a Los Angeles-based marijuana trafficking group were indicted on charges of bribing Federal Express (FedEx) employees to ship 121 tons of Mexican marijuana to the East Coast. The FedEx employees were allegedly paid $2,000 per week for their part in the scheme. FedEx trucks, planes, and warehouses were used to transport and store the marijuana. The group wrapped the marijuana in dozens of layers of cellophane sprinkled with laundry detergent and fabric softener to conceal the odor of the leaves. The corrupt FedEx employees apparently packed the marijuana into FedEx boxes addressed to nonexistent companies. They then passed the marijuana packages to dealers parked along delivery routes. Destinations for the marijuana included hundreds of cities and towns across the East Coast. The alleged leader of the group was a Jamaican male.

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Mexican DTOs and criminal groups dominate the wholesale marijuana market in the Los Angeles area. Marijuana also is transshipped from Los Angeles to distribution networks throughout the United States. There is some evidence that wholesalers are trading BC Bud--pound for pound--for cocaine. Hispanic and African American street gangs are the predominant distributors of foreign marijuana at the retail level, while the domestic cannabis growers distribute marijuana in the Central District.



Mexican DTOs and criminal groups control most of the marijuana distribution in the Los Angeles HIDTA and although they compete with domestic cannabis growers, the competition appears to be nonviolent.

An April 2000 federal grand jury indictment revealed a significant Los Angeles-based Jamaican DTO dealing in Mexican marijuana. The Jamaican DTO transported marijuana from its storage location in Los Angeles to its distribution cells in the Northeast. It obtained its supply of marijuana from the Arellano-Felix organization and operated out of a Los Angeles warehouse for approximately 2 years. However, none of this marijuana was distributed in Los Angeles, primarily because of the inability of the Jamaican DTO to compete with gangs in Los Angeles that dominate the marijuana market. Members of the Jamaican DTOs transportation and distribution cells were arrested in California, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York.



Street gangs dominate marijuana distribution at the retail, or street, level. Hispanic gangs sell methamphetamine, PCP (phencyclidine), and occasionally crack cocaine in addition to marijuana. African American gangs such as the Crips and Bloods traffic not only in crack cocaine but also in marijuana. Some other street gangs selling marijuana in the district include the Insane Crip Gang and West Side Longos in Long Beach, Big Stanton in Orange County, and West Side Verdugo in San Bernardino County. Although street gangs control retail distribution, law enforcement reports individual dealers also are involved in street-level sales.


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