Federal agency OKs tougher sentencing for illegal trespass pot grows | TheUnion.com

Federal agency OKs tougher sentencing for illegal trespass pot grows

Keri Brenner
Staff Writer

A federal agency has voted to move ahead with tougher penalties for high-level offenders involved in marijuana cultivation when it involves trespassing on public or private lands.

"This is a big win," said Don Bessee of Alta Sierra, who led a local nonpartisan coalition of environmental, faith-based, and social service agencies to support the new guidelines, part of what was dubbed The Plant Act.

The stricter penalties, which add on a new enhancement for high-level offenders involved in trespass pot grows, are part of a package of amendments to federal sentencing guidelines approved April 10 by the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

The package now goes for review to the full Congress, which has until May 1 to make any changes. If no changes are made, the amendments to the sentencing guidelines will go into effect Nov. 1.

"Law enforcement officers and community leaders emphasized to us the harms to the environment and public safety resulting from marijuana cultivation on public and private lands," said Judge Patti B. Saris, chair of the Commission, in explaining the proposed amendments. "For example, marijuana cultivation outdoors spreads chemicals like herbicides, pesticides and rodenticides, which can cause damage to land, enter the water table and poison wildlife."

Nevada County Sheriff Keith Royal told The Union in March that the illegal pot traffickers were clear-cutting timber, diverting waterways, spraying pesticides and putting out poison for animals — and leaving a huge mess behind when they leave.

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Under the new proposed amendments to the sentencing guidelines, illegal marijuana traffickers arrested at trespass pot grows "on state or federal land or while trespassing on tribal or private land … receive an adjustment for (an) aggravating role," in addition to the standard drug trafficking offenses, the amendments state.

The proposed amendments also provide a new application note stating that such offenses "interfere with the ability of others to safely access and use the area and also pose or risk a range of other harms, such as harms to the environment," according to a synopsis.

Bishop Dr. Ron Allen, CEO and president of the Sacramento-based International Faith-Based Coalition, called the illegal trespass growers "environmental terrorists who grow weed.

"In one operation in the Mendocino National Forest, officials found 56 cultivated sites that had over 468,00 plants and 32 firearms," Allen said in a memo urging support of the Plant Act. "It resulted in 102 arrests."

Allen said authorities had to remove 23 tons of trash, a ton of fertilizer, 57 pounds of poisons, 22 miles of irrigation pipes, 120 large propane tanks and 13 man-made dams from waterways — all at taxpayer expense.

"The restoration of the 56 sites will take decades, and this was only one national park," Allen said.

Nevada County typically has several large "gardens" — or areas where illegal growers are operating — every year, Royal said.

The Plant Act is sponsored by U.S. Rep. Doug LaMalfa, who represents Nevada County, and several other Northern California congressmen. In November, LaMalfa requested that the U.S. Sentencing Commission update federal sentencing guidelines to address the bootleggers' offenses to the environment and to public health.

The commission on Jan. 17 published proposed amendments in the Federal Register.

The deadline on public comment for the changes to the guidelines was March 18, followed by the U.S. Sentencing Commission hearing on April 10.

To contact Staff Writer Keri Brenner, email kbrenner@theunion.com or call 530-477-4239.

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