January 8, 2006 - Police raiding massive marijuana farms 300 miles apart are discovering that the same brands of fertilizer, pesticides and shovels are often used to grow tens of thousands of high-grade pot plants.
Government analysts are using such seemingly innocuous information, plugged into a shared database by drug agents in four western states, to search for patterns linking diverse operations across the West and into Mexico.
"There's definitely a quartermaster system in operation" as large-scale growers learn to take advantage of economies of scale to cut costs and maximize profits, said Jim Day, law enforcement coordinator for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Sacramento.
U.S. Attorney McGregor W. Scott lobbied for federal money to set up the intelligence-sharing units in 2004 to go after the brains and financing behind increasingly sophisticated marijuana-growing operations. He had become frustrated that prosecutions in his Northern California district often stopped with poor Mexican immigrants illegally imported to guard the giant pot farms.
"They taught me in the Army, when you win the intelligence battle, you win the battle. That's what we're trying to do here with marijuana eradication," said Scott, who doubles as an Army Reserve lieutenant colonel. "The goal is to identify the lieutenants and the captains and the heads of these organizations."
A Sacramento-based "fusion center" tracks information based not on geography, but by tying together all the information on particular drug operations that routinely span state and national borders, said Tommy LaNier, who directs the San Diego-based National Marijuana Initiative.
"What we want to do is link all the cases that are tied back to these major targets that we've identified," LaNier said. "We've got a lot of work to do, but we're making a dent."
Before the summer's growing season begins, the program will expand to include rural mountainous California counties that often have difficulty trading information that could help snare criminals.
That sort of coordinated attack is increasingly crucial as drug cartels replace small-time marijuana growers in California's Emerald Triangle counties of Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity, and shove aside biker gangs cooking methamphetamine in the San Joaquin Valley.
"This is not mom and pop stuff," said Bill Ruzzamenti, who heads a Central Valley drug task force. "We're investigating one group that I am convinced is growing a million plants in several different states. It just boggles the mind."
The intelligence units that pull together tidbits from California, Oregon, Washington and Idaho are credited with helping break up two major growing operations in California's Central Valley in the last year.
Oscar Rosales of Fresno is accused of heading an operation that smuggled high-grade marijuana from California and low-quality pot from Mexico to buyers across the nation. Forty-two people were charged in that case, including Reuben James Houston, a senior starting cornerback for Georgia Tech who was allegedly going to distribute 100 pounds in Atlanta when he was arrested in June.
A second investigation brought 64 arrests in an operation that allegedly distributed marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine from the Mexican border to Oregon.
Investigators in those two cases -- along with Scott and marijuana eradication teams for California, Los Angeles, and Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks -- will be among 29 individuals and programs nationwide recognized at an anti-drug conference in Washington, D.C., later this month.