Toxic, carcinogenic chemicals have been moving across our border with Mexico for several years. The cause for the smuggling is the profit motive for cartels and other criminal elements. The cost to the environment is not a consideration.
The problem was revealed in a series of stories published in Times of San Diego that described the poisoning of plants, animals and groundwater not just in our region but throughout the West.
Among the headlines: “Dangerous, Banned Pesticides Finding Their Way into California” and “Spotted Owls, Fishers Dying in California from Pesticides.”
The stories tell of smuggling operations along the international border, but this is not about the smuggling of guns, drugs or humans. It’s about the smuggling of illegal, toxic pesticides into the United States.
The potential harm in this pesticide smuggling grabbed the attention of Rep. Scott Peters, a former environmental attorney. Responding to what he perceives as a threat, the congressman introduced legislation Friday that would raise the criminal penalties for spreading banned pesticides while illegally cultivating marijuana on federal lands.
The Times of San Diego stories revealed how the cartels are using national forests for massive marijuana grow farms, and how it’s more profitable and safer for the gangs to grow the pot on public lands in the United States than trying to haul tons of the pot grown in Mexico across the border.
It’s called “trespass cannabis cultivation,” and research has shown it to be a major threat to wildlife and watersheds across California and the United States.
The latest information available shows authorities seized 953,000 plants from illegal grow sites, equal to the value of California’s entire legal cannabis market of more than $1.5 billion.
With this kind of money at stake, the cartels do whatever it takes to protect their investment. This includes using powerful pesticides banned in this country. When the cartels’ workers spread pesticide across the marijuana plantings, the toxins work their way up the food chain and into the nation’s groundwater supply. The U.S. Forest Service discovered that more than 70% of the spotted owls within one region had pesticide in their tissues.
It all begins when rodents feast on marijuana stalks, the pesticide kills them, and their carcasses become easy pickings for hungry owls and fishers. Melanie Pierson, the lead prosecutor from U.S. Attorney’s office on pesticide cases, said the chemicals “are in the class of neurotoxins that originally were designed to be chemical-warfare weapons.”
The Environmental Protection Agency, Homeland Security, Forest Service and California Department of Toxic Substances Control are also assisting in prosecution of the pesticide cases.
Times of San Diego’s coverage of the issue revealed an increase in prosecutions. However, a government source who is not allowed to speak on the record, complained that “the penalties for these crimes are a slap on the wrist,” with smugglers having to pay relatively small fines and serving short sentences — if they get any time at all.
The risk-reward tradeoff favors the smugglers when you consider a $10 bottle of these chemicals in Mexico “can sell in the United States from $130 to $250 for that same bottle,” according to Pierson.
This is one of several elements of these crimes that Peters, a Democrat who represents coastal San Diego County, hopes to remedy with his proposed bill. Its goal is to punish those responsible and restore the lands damaged by the use of the pesticides.
Peters’ Targeting and Offsetting Existing Illegal Contaminants (TOXIC) Act would raise the penalties for using banned pesticides in illegal cannabis cultivation to a maximum of 20 years in prison and $250,000 in fines,
The legislation ensures that “people who use banned pesticides to cultivate cannabis on federal lands receive punishments befitting of the environmental damage they cause.” And it would allow the Forest Service to use Superfund toxic waste dollars to “address environmental damages caused by the application of banned pesticides.” The bill also asks the President to create a dedicated budget request for the program.
The legislation says stopping the grow operations and stemming the flow of banned pesticides must remain a priority, but now it’s time for the federal government to “leverage its financial resources to remedy the environmental damage these sites cause.”