HUMBOLDT COUNTY (KPIX 5) -- They call it the green rush: People from all over the world are flocking to Northern California's Humboldt County to grow marijuana. The law says it has to be for medicine, but it's all too easy to game the system with hardly any legal consequences.
From the sky it's painfully obvious, the rivers and streams of Northern California are running dry. But in Humboldt County it's not just because of the drought: It's the thousands of marijuana plants.
INSIDE CALIFORNIA'S MARIJUANA COUNTRY:
- Northern California Marijuana Grows Attract International Investment
- Humboldt Pot Raid Shows Environmental Wreckage From Illegal Marijuana Farms
- Mysterious Men Dropping From Helicopters To Chop Down NorCal Marijuana Grows
- Emerald Triangle's 'Murder Mountain' In Marijuana Country Living Up To Its Name
Each plant requires up to six gallons of water per day. And in this time of drought an increasing number of growers are taking water from rivers and streams without a state permit. That's illegal. But we found very few marijuana growers ever go to prison.
Take the case of one operation, run last year by a group of Bulgarian nationals. Sheriff's deputies destroyed 200 plants and confiscated some 400 pounds of processed marijuana. Hundreds of trees had been cut down to make room for greenhouses and a nearby creek was completely drained.
The sheriff's department says Valentin Marinov was the ringleader. His punishment was a $300,000 civil fine for the environmental damage, but no criminal charges were ever filed.
Even when there are charges, they often get dropped. Last year, 109 people were arrested or cited for cultivation and possession of marijuana for sale. While 86 were charged by the district attorney, only seven were ever convicted.
Even more striking: The police officers who conduct the raids on illegal pot grows told us in the last five years, not one single cultivation case has gone to trial in Humboldt County.
"There is no inaction on my part. It's a frustrating situation," said Humboldt County District Attorney Paul Gallegos.
The DA said don't blame him: It's California's much too vague medical marijuana law.
"There are no clear guidelines," he said.
Under the Compassionate Use Act, you can grow cannabis for medical use with a doctor's note, called a "recommendation." You can even form a co-op and grow communally.
But every county has different regulations on how many plants are allowed per patient, and Humboldt has no regulations at all.
Gallegos said people game the system. "We can arrive at these sites, these 100 plants and we are like wow, completely illegal activity. Then 100 recommendations will surface. Whether they are lawful or not since the burden of proof is beyond a reasonable doubt, its often a burden of proof that we are not able to prevail at trial," he said.
KPIX 5 tried contacting Marinov. He has a business called "Ancient Truth" registered in Walnut Creek. But nobody at the address knew him, and he was nowhere to be found.
Meanwhile, back in Humboldt County, the pot farm he was running last year appears to be back in business.
The sheriff and the D.A are frustrated, because they both acknowledge organized crime has moved in to the area. The fact is, juries in Humboldt County historically side with the growers. So the D.A. says he's not taking cases to trial because he knows he'll lose.
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