Pesticides smuggled from Mexico
Pesticides smuggled from Mexico. Photo from Justice Department environmental crimes bulletin

Deadly, banned pesticides are making their way across the international border into California, heading to large marijuana-growing operations on federal lands. 

And for end users, warns Clyde Ogg of the University of Nebraska, “Pesticide residues in cannabis that has been dried and is inhaled have a direct pathway into the bloodstream.”

It’s been an ongoing problem, and the number of arrests has been rising steadily, according to Melanie Pierson, assistant U.S. Attorney in the Southern California District. Her office has filed 49 cases involving pesticide smugglers since September of 2019. She also has a long history of prosecuting environmental and wildlife cases. 

Pierson said 40 percent of all Environmental Protection Agency criminal prosecutions in the United States in 2020 involved pesticide cases. She adds that these banned pesticides are “designed to kill.”

The health threat is not only for someone smoking weed purchased  from a local dealer. It is also a serious health issue for the men and women of the U.S. Forest Service who have to deal with large growing operations in our national parks. One location near San Diego County, the San Bernardino National Forest, is a popular landing place for these pesticides.  

For the forestry workers, it’s not simply a matter of pulling out the plants.

They’ve been warned by the agency to handle the removal of the marijuana very carefully.  If they brush up against a plant and touch their face, mouth, or nose, there is the potential for muscle weakness, dizziness or worse.

 In a recent sentencing, an Apple Valley man, Saul Flores Banuelos, pleaded guilty to smuggling Qufuran, which is “extremely dangerous to humans, wildlife and the environment,” according to court documents. Court records show he purchased it at a store in Tijuana.

Banuelos was caught with eight 1-liter bottles, and border agents found receipts for 15 bottles he had previously smuggled.  Banuelos said he was instructed to deliver the bottles to a “gardener“ but he couldn’t remember the name or address.

Coma and Death

According to Pierson’s court documents, the active ingredient in Qufuran is carbofuran, a highly toxic insecticide that “affects the central nervous system due to prolonged stimulation of nerves and muscles by the same mechanism as chemical warfare nerve agents.” The document notes that carbofuran is “highly toxic to birds, fish, and mammals, including humans,” with “lethal potency from absorption by ingestion, contact with skin, and inhalation. Poisoning in humans may result in malaise,” as well as “tremors, blurry vision, salivation, incoordination” and coma and death.

In addition to the toxicity of pesticides, they can penetrate the ground and pollute groundwater and have done so  across wide swaths of federal lands in California, says Greta Wenger of the Integral Ecology Research Center. Wenger studies the effect of illegal pot plantations on forest ecosystems. The center has detected carbofuran in the ground, vegetation, and in water. 

For his  crime, Banuelos will pay $1,200 in fines and receive two months in lock-up and three years probation. When asked why Banuleous received this sentence, Pierson would only say “It’s the sentencing guidelines.”

The Profit Motive 

Pierson pointed out that the profit margin in smuggling pesticides into the U.S. can approach that of drugs.  Quoting from a 2020 report from trade groups as part of a United Nations conference the “profits from illegal pesticides have become a highly lucrative activity for organized criminal operations.” 

As found by Investigative reporter Krzysztof Story in his article about pesticides smuggled into Europe from China: “The risk of arrest and conviction is small and profits may be huge,” The reporter adds that smugglers get a slap on the wrist and an “affordable fine”.  

Pierson says she has another pesticide smuggling trial coming up on May 25 in which the defendant is charged with smuggling 35 bottles of banned pesticides.

JW August is a San Diego-based broadcast and digital journalist.