FRESNO, Calif. (AP) — Last fall, narcotics agents confiscated thousands of marijuana plants, many 10 feet tall, from a 140-acre farm just on the edge of Fresno — one of the biggest pot busts in the county's history. The pot grew hidden among rows of rotting peppers, tomatoes and bitter melons, tended by a dozen immigrant farming families.
Deputies detained 50 people, all of whom were lowland Laotians, a refugee population from southeast Asia that has made its home in California's Central Valley over the past three decades. Investigators say that some of these traditional vegetable growers have become increasingly involved in well-organized medical marijuana growing schemes, with the aim of selling the drug commercially.
The Laotians' involvement has expanded in recent years, with the move toward growing pot in California's agricultural heartland. Now, authorities say, people from this relatively small community account for much of the pot growing in backyards and on prime farmland, while Mexican drug traffickers dominate grows in the forests of surrounding mountains.
"There are many more Laotians involved in the agricultural grows than Mexicans," said Lauren Horwood, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Eastern District of California, which conducted several prosecutions of lowland Laotian growers last year.
The problem has become so widespread that the U.S. Attorney's office is producing a brochure in Lao and plans a television program on a local Laotian channel.
While federal law still prohibits marijuana, California's landmark 1996 ballot measure allows patients with a doctor's recommendation or their caregivers to grow pot for medical use. However, investigators say many growers instead are selling marijuana commercially for profit, which is illegal under both state and federal law.
The Laotians cultivate marijuana plants the height of trees, using the state's medical marijuana law and the lush cover of other crops to avoid detection.
"In the Valley, they're the ones growing acreage," said Brent Wood, a special agent with California's Department of Justice who heads the multi-agency Central Valley Marijuana Investigation Team. "They will have 20-30 doctor recommendations from family members, and their plants are humongous monsters. They're very organized and very good at selling the pot out of state."
Community leaders say some Laotian refugees and their adult children, who suffer high unemployment and poverty, turn to pot farming out of desperation, because it seems the only way to make a decent living.
Laotians started streaming into the Central Valley in the early 1980s, in the wake of the Vietnam War and the communist takeover of Laos. They fled bombings, forced labor and persecution to refugee camps in Thailand and later moved to countries such as the United States.
About 10,000 Laotians settled in central California, refugee advocates estimate. The region's productive agricultural land drew them, because many were farmers in Laos and hoped to transplant their skills here.
Instead, community leaders say, Laotians have languished in a region with high poverty levels. Many cannot find work and at least 40 percent receive government assistance, said John Bosavanh, a Laotian caseworker with the Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries.
Most lack an education and have limited English skills, he said. And small-scale vegetable farming brings in little money and a lot of headaches, including the inability to compete with bigger farmers.
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