As America's multibillion dollar cannabis industry continues to expand, the nation's drug cops are seizing less weed.
In 2009, the first summer of Barack Obama's presidency, a record 10.4 million marijuana plants were eliminated in America, according to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.
California alone accounted for 7.5 million plants that year, according to the DEA's annual report on its “Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program,” one of the biggest multi-agency law enforcement efforts in the country.
It was also a record year for the California Department of Justice's own Campaign Against Marijuana Planting — CAMP, as it is known and cursed throughout the state's pot-producing regions. Helicopter-riding police associated with CAMP accounted for 4,463,917 plants destroyed, the highest in CAMP's 31-year history. (The DEA total likely includes CAMP's number, though a spokeswoman for Attorney General Kamala Harris was unable to confirm this by press deadline).
Five years later, with recreational cannabis legal in two states and medical marijuana spreading even to the Bible Belt, plant seizures plummeted.
In 2013, the most recent year in which national data was available, the DEA reported eliminating 4,395,000 million plants, according to Special Agent Eduardo Chavez, an agency spokesman. In California, seizures dropped to 2.9 million plants.
The state has chilled out even more. Last year, CAMP reported destroying 836,596 plants, the lowest total since 2004. (To give you an idea of how far we've come since then, 2004 was the year that DEA agents raided a six-plant garden in Nevada City. Six plants, everybody.) Likewise, DEA's California numbers dropped in 2014 to just under 2.7 million plants.
A decrease of 7.5 million to 2.7 million in five years is a spectacular drop, but does it mean the war on cannabis is ending?
And if so, who won?
Loquacious after a big bust, law enforcement declined to participate in this story. A spokeswoman for the DEA said the agency would have no comment beyond providing statistics. Messages left for the Trinity, Humboldt, and Mendocino county sheriff's departments were not returned; a spokeswoman for the state Department of Justice, which administers CAMP, did not answer questions by press deadline.
It's true that attitudes on cannabis have changed more in the last few years that in the preceding few decades. Congress has removed funding for messing with state-legal weed from the Justice Department's budget (though that has no impact on the DEA's ability to work with the Forest Service and local law enforcement to rub out illegal grows), and federal legislation that would allow cannabis to be researched and accessed more easily has record support.
Anecdotally, at least, it appears that law enforcement has also shifted its approach. Last summer, the bad old days were revived for a few weeks by sheriff's deputies in Mendocino County, who descended from helicopters to “summarily eradicate” — read: destroy without warrant or warning — pot patches, a legal move under a section of case law called the “open fields clause.” This summer, authorities' most visible presence has been visits from agencies like the state Water Board and the Department of Fish and Wildlife. Cannabis policing now looks for water use or land-grading violations before sending in police.
“In our opinion, that's a good thing,” said Hezekiah Allen, a onetime grower who now lobbies the state Legislature on behalf of cannabis farmers for the Emerald Growers Association. “If you're trying to end a war, visits from code enforcement are better” than military-style raids, he said.
The summer's big raids fit this more selective pattern. An industrial-sized farm on tribal land in remote Modoc County was raided after tribe members complained. Similarly, a big eradication effort on Yurok tribal land in Humboldt came at that tribe's request. And authorities gave water use violations, not plant counts, as the main reason behind a big raid in the Island Mountain region of Humboldt.
At the same time, growers' attitudes appear to be shifting. They're moving away from cannabis's longtime home hidden in the redwoods.
CAMP is still busiest in the North Coast, where Trinity (90,283 plants seized last year), Mendocino (66,818) and Humboldt counties (37,455) comprise the famed Emerald Triangle.
However, more plants were reported seized in Lake (83,635), Tulare (66,509), Shasta (60,143), and Sonoma (52,593) counties than in Humboldt.
Even Santa Clara County, in the heart of Silicon Valley, had more plants seized (39,538) than Humboldt.
As cannabis becomes more accepted, this trend will continue. It is simply easier and more feasible to operate industrial-sized greenhouses near highways and population centers — like in the Central Valley, minutes from Interstate 5 — than on a remote mountaintop far from the nearest highway. That's one reason why one of the year's biggest busts, an 11,000-plant operation, was near Fresno and not Ferndale.
But make no mistake: There's no peace yet, and bad players are still out there.
Over half of the pot seized by CAMP last summer was on publicly owned land, either national forests, national parks, or tribal land. As long as there are renegade grows, there will be helicopter-riding police.
But nearly everywhere else, it appears the drug war really is ending. For proof, just look to the sky.