Watch CBS News

Hmong Settlers Say Siskiyou County Pot-Grow Crackdown Smells Like Discrimination

YREKA, Siskiyou County (KPIX 5) -- Another day, another bust at an illegal marijuana grow garden in God's country -- Northern California's Siskiyou County.

"You have a large number of plants -- 99 plants maybe. You know, it's totally out of compliance for this county," noted Siskiyou County Sheriff's deputy Mike Gilley.

Out of compliance, but hardly out of the ordinary here in the shadow of Mount Shasta.

Siskiyou County Sheriff Jon E. Lopey is striking back against an explosion of illegal marijuana grows. He's convinced that his county has been overrun by what amounts to a drug cartel.

"Is there a multi-billion dollar interstate endeavor underway to perpetuate illegal marijuana production in my county? Of course there is," Sheriff Lopey told KPIX 5.

READ MORE: Hundreds of Illegal Marijuana Grow Operations Sprout in the Shadow of Mount Shasta

Sheriff Lopey said that proof of an interstate crime endeavor walked into his office -- with an offer of a bribe.

"That was unusual," Sheriff Lopey recalls. "It's not every day someone comes in and offers you a million dollars."

According to federal prosecutors, one man and his sister offered the sheriff $80,000 in cash plus $1 million for his re-election campaign and a piece of their planned marijuana profits in Missouri. The sheriff then wore an FBI wire for a month and allegedly recorded promises by other growers willing to pay for protection.

"If they can offer me a million dollars and a stake in an out-of-state commercial marijuana operation, that tells me this marijuana problem we're dealing with in California is an interstate crime syndicate that has millions -- if not billions -- of dollars at their disposal," Lopey said.

Marjorie King has lived in the area for years. She has watched long-vacant properties erupt with hundreds of pot grows but she sees all of this a bit differently from the sheriff.

"People started saying 'Ooh, this is a drug cartel' and all this stuff and I looked at my neighbors, like, really? This is what gangsters look like?"

King is referring to the majority of her new neighbors, more than a thousand members of the Hmong people from southeast Asia.

"People are saying this has to be a cartel, all these people coming at once ... if you go back and you look at their culture you see a whole different picture," King says.

That impression was reinforced by Mouying Lee, who emerged as something of a spokesperson for Siskiyou County's Hmong community.

"The Hmong people discovered this place in 2014. One of the reasons that we move into the area is because of the cheap property," Lee said.

As for his reaction to the sheriff's belief in an organized, interstate drug cartel?

"(Sheriff Lopey) can say anything but he's a law officer and he should know he cannot say anything without proof."

This difference in perspectives is about as wide as the valley itself.

The sheriff sees a land grab: "Well over a thousand land transactions, many parcels changing hands more than once."

Mr. Lee sees affordable land for a community that famously sticks close together: "Not only the growers but there are people who retired there who want to live there forever."

Sheriff Lopey: "We have water trucks running up and down the road providing water to these illegal sites. Garbage, human waste -- you have shacks, you have ramshackle trailers being moved into these communities."

And, again, Marjorie King: "People think that's shocking and horrible, how do they stand it? But when you look at their history and their culture -- where they came from -- they were living in bamboo huts with grass thatch roofs."

So, as the debate and the gardens spread, county supervisors launched a crackdown, effectively banning outdoor grows. Then voters went further, making almost any grow illegal.

None of those measures stopped the growers. More land was sold, more gardens were planted -- each one guarded by a piece of paper referencing California's medical cannabis laws.

King says the raids took the Hmong by surprise. "When they first started raiding, people were absolutely stunned: 'why are they doing this? This is our property, I'm not breaking any laws!'"

The raids produced more than stunned confusion. Lee says Hmong growers feel the crackdown has unfairly targeted their community.

"Sheriff Lopey is right here ... Hmong are here. How many gardens are legal? So far, have you heard anything about the white (people's) gardens being raided? No!"

That is an allegation which Sheriff Lopey does not take lightly.

"Yes, I really get irritated with misrepresentations of my county. We have a great county, thoughtful people. We're targeting lawbreakers. We're not targeting any specific community," Lopey insisted.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.