If only Gila County could sell the marijuana it seizes at illegal Payson-area pot patches to California dispensaries, the nearly $10 million worth of marijuana destroyed in the last month could have helped our state budget woes.
In the past year, the Gila County Sheriff’s Office Drug, Gang and Violent Crimes Task Force, in connection with the U.S. Forest Service, has destroyed more than $23 million in marijuana plants at eight marijuana farms.
The grow sites were discovered and reported solely by concerned citizens, said a detective with the task force, who asked to remain anonymous given the sensitivity of his work.
Police conducted the most recent raids on Sept. 17, Sept. 29 and Oct. 7, in remote areas surrounding Payson. An estimated 7,748 plants weighing 11,622 pounds were destroyed, and three illegal immigrants were taken into custody. An investigation remains ongoing.
“The grow sites ranged from the Mogollon Rim to the Mazatzal Rim, the Mt. Ord area to the Sierra Anchas,” the detective said.
As in past years, all of the sites were grown and harvested by illegal immigrants working for drug cartels in Mexico. Investigators believe the weed was grown for distribution in and around the country.
The most recent raid, on Oct. 7, hit a 1,677- plant site in Deer Creek.
The detective said the garden was in such a remote area of the Rim that only an extreme hiker could reach it.
Unfortunately, no one was at the site when officers arrived. Often the sites are deserted before officers can move in. Other times, sites are reopened after investigators have come in and destroyed everything.
The detective said it is hard to tell where the next grow site will sprout, since some are miles into the woods while others sit just off the road.
“They are typically in remote, rugged areas,” he said.
Illegal workers feed the plants with spring or creek water gravity-fed through pipes. While some sites have drip lines for each plant, some are more rudimentary and each plant is hand-watered.
However they are grown, the detective said it is not hard to detect a site once you are within smelling distance.
“The plants have a very strong odor that really stinks,” he said.
While the task force has eradicated eight sites this year, in past years as many as 20 grow sites were destroyed.
Because armed workers often guard the sites, a team of officers along with the DPS SWAT unit hikes into each site. The task force and Forest Service work in conjunction with the Arizona Department of Public Safety, Phoenix Police Department, Miami Police Department, Payson Police Department, Show Low Police Department, Navajo County Sheriff's Major Crime Apprehension Team, MCAT and Gila County Sheriff’s Office.
Anyone with further information or tips can contact the GCSO at (928) 425-4449 or (928) 474-2208.
“Any information is greatly appreciated,” the detective said.