In California, marijuana is a huge business, raking in an estimated $5 billion to $10 billion a year. California grapes only bring in around $3 billion and tomatoes, just $1 billion. Some communities turn into boom towns when marijuana growers harvest and sell their crop. 60 Minutes II's Vicki Mabrey reports.
But it's not acceptable to state officials, who have declared war - not just on dealers and growers - but on the plant itself. Leading that war is Sonya Barna, called by some The Patton of Pot. She commands a state program called the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting, or CAMP, with the mission of wiping out every pot plant in California.
Her team includes three dozen foot soldiers. For 11 weeks of the year around harvest time, they search for California's pot crop.
Since the leaves of the plant are almost an iridescent green, "it stands out from the air," she explains.
To avoid detection, growers have gone deep into the public lands of California's national forests and parks. In some places CAMP has found massive farms with as many as 59,000 plants, worth millions.
The plants Barna finds today are 10 times as strong as the pot of the '60s and '70s, she says.
"They'll get a pound and a half," she estimates of one plant. "Each pound is worth $4,000 on the street."
Small-time entrepreneurs have been joined by drug gangs, many from Mexico.
"This is about big, big money," says John Gaines, a special agent. "This is about making a profit, taking the profit out of the United States, taking it back to Mexico. This is organized crime, bottom line."
In October, Gaines and officers from the state narcotics bureau finished a three-year investigation that culminated in the arrests of 41 people, all allegedly working for the Maganyas, a Mexican crime family. The Maganyas have realized over five years a profit estimated at $40 million to $50 million, he says.
"There's less risk to getting caught coming across the border with a large load of marijuana," Gaines explains. "Our marijuana laws in the state of California are not real strong." In Mexico marijuana laws are much tougher, he says.
In August, a Mexican citizen allegedly working for the Maganyas opened fire during a CAMP raid on a 7,000-plant garden. He was shot and killed by sheriff's deputies.
"Whenever you take these types of people moving into that industry and taking such large efforts to make their money, they're going to protect it," Barna says. "They're going to take care of it. And that means more guns, more violence, and people getting hurt."
Increasingly Barna encounters huge operations, with irrigation systems and armed guards. Mexican farm workers are brought in blindfolded and paid a few hundred dollars a month to live with the crop. Barna points to some evidence of habitation, including a kichen, popane tanks for cooking and canned goods, corn oil, tuna, tortillas.
As the growers become more sophisticated, the pot police have adapted. There's an Short Term Airborne Operation, or STABO, Barna says. "The helicopter drops (a) 150-foot-long line down, and we're hooked up to that line and get inserted into the garden."
A mother of three, Barna is committed to fighting drugs. She went undercover at age 21 as a drug-dealing student, who "purchased everything from marijuana, methamphetamine, LSD."
Under Barna's direction, CAMP is weeding out more plants. Last season's take was 345,000 plants, enough marijuana for 310 million joints: one for every American and an extra for every Californian.
"The people of the state of California have decided that they don't want this for their state. So that's what we're here to do, not to judge whether it's just pot, or not as strong as cocaine," Barna declares.
CAMP has been trying to wipe out California's marijuana crop since 1983. Some critics say that the group is fighting a losing battle.
"Marijuana is more prevalent than ever, and what does that tell us?" asks former U.S. Congressman Dan Hamburg, who says CAMP's plant seizures may be up, but they're barely scratching the surface.
"There's another six or 800,000 plants that they haven't touched," Hamburg says. The commercial growers have learned very well how to deal with CAMP. And they're willing to sacrifice, a certain amount of their crop...because marijuana is literally more valuable than gold."
Mendocino County is one of three northern counties where pot is so rich and plentiful the area is known as the Emerald Triangle. There CAMP's pot commandos aren't considered heroes; they're the enemy. Restaurants refuse to serve them. The local radio station broadcasts warnings when CAMP's troops are patrolling.
"It's just like a terrorist operation," says Richard Littlefield. "You have that helicopter over your head,...and circling around you for no reason; you will feel intimidated."
CAMP intimidated Littlefield when its helicopters spotted 120 marijuana plants on his property. He and his brother say they're allowed to have the plants, thanks to a 1996 law that lets Californians have marijuana for medical use.
All 10 of the Littlefields claimed that their pot was purely medicinal. Law enforcement didn't buy it. Barna and her team eradicated all but seven of the plants.
But using marijuana for medical reasons is not uncommon. The former congressman grows six plants for his mother, 76, who has cancer. Hamburg and his wife turn their crop into butter to make Rice Krispie treats to ease his mother's nausea and increase her appetite. What they are doing is completely legal, he asserts.
Voters in Hamburg's county recently passed Measure G, making Mendocino the first county to legalize marijuan not just for medical use, but also for personal use.
"The people of Mendocino County are really leading the way for the entire nation, in saying we're grownups, we're big kids and we can decide what the laws should be around marijuana," Hamburg says.
But California has already decided marijuana is against the law. Despite the medical marijuana exception, the drug remains illegal in the state. So Barna will continue waging war against individual entrepreneurs and gangs in every California county.
Copyright 2001 CBS. All rights reserved.