The Ultimate Firearms Destination for the Gun Lifestyle

The Weed Wars in the West

The Evolution of America’s First Paramilitary Marijuana Enforcement Team

I’ll never forget Friday, August 5, 2005, a date that ignited a progressive change for California conservation officers. Two other game wardens and I were assisting fellow operators from the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office Marijuana Eradication Team (MET). That day’s mission was an allied agency arrest and eradication operation against a Mexican drug cartel’s illegal trespass marijuana grow located in the densely wooded mountains above the urban sprawl of the Silicon Valley. While tactically stalking into the grow complex, we were ambushed by a heavily armed crew of cartel gunmen. The gunfight that ensued a split second following the tell-tale muzzle blast of a grower’s AK-47 left my partner severely wounded, one gunman neutralized, and at least one additional armed grower on the run.

Just a year on the job, my squad mate’s first trespass marijuana eradication operation had turned fatal in an instant and nearly ended his promising career. And unlike any previous environmental crime-fighting operation, this was the first mission where our allied agency counter-drug team had taken enemy fire and the first domestic eradication mission where a law enforcement officer had been shot in America.

Lt. John Nores’s latest book, Hidden War, chronicles the development, deployment, and effectiveness of the nation’s first thin green line conservation officer tactical unit developed to combat the international drug cartel’s decimation of our nation’s wildlife waterways and wildlands. Available in hard cover and kindle through Amazon, and Barnes and Noble.

What I didn’t realize during that fateful August day was how much that gunfight would catalyze a progressive focus on the egregious environmental destruction the Mexican drug cartels, referred to as Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTOs), wreak throughout our great nation. Sobering that day though was the awareness that we were underequipped to deal with this level of domestic eco-terrorism threat moving forward.

With the DTOs favoring the use of EPA-banned and highly toxic poisonous insecticides and rodenticides on their plants, the poisoning of pristine waterways and the killing of sensitive wildlife species is massive throughout and for many miles around DTO-run trespass marijuana grow sites across the country. Under trade names like Carbofuran, Q-Furan, Furdan, and Metaphos, skilled DTO growers easily smuggle these poisons from Mexico into America. Called “El Diablo” (the devil) by the growers themselves, these poisons are highly toxic to not only waterways, wildlife, and wildlands, but pose a deadly threat to humans if breathed, touched, or ingested.

Typical DTO trespass marijuana grow plot threatening an endangered steelhead trout creek along California’s lush central coastline.

These poisons function as a nerve agent, using ingredients in warfare-bred nerve gas developed by the Nazi regime during World War II and killing quickly. Two tablespoons of these products can destroy miles of a flowing creek, killing mammals, birds, fish, and other aquatic species within that watershed for several miles. In extreme cases, we’ve seen public drinking water sources poisoned from tainted run-off generated from high country headwaters feeding valley communities below.

DTO grower cells apply these poisons directly onto individual marijuana plants throughout their complexes, as well as putting it directly into streams and river diversions used to water their lucrative cash crop. Without a concern for human health and no desire to generate organically pure cannabis, the DTOs don’t decontaminate their processed cannabis before it hits the nationwide black market. Since California leads the west in generating the bulk of the nation’s supply of illegal marijuana (approximately 75 percent), with a majority of that being cultivated by DTO cells, the human health threat to unaware consumers ingesting this tainted weed is high.

Along with the widespread use of these deadly poisons, the impacts from DTO grow operations on the nation’s water supply is extreme. For example, between 2014 and 2015, trespass marijuana cultivation operations on public and private lands accounted for approximately 1.3-billion gallons of water stolen in California during peak drought years.

Not widely known until recently, illegal DTO outdoor marijuana plants require approximately 10 to 12 gallons of water per day to mature successfully over a 45- to 90-day period to be successfully harvested. To put this in perspective, an average outdoor DTO trespass grow site holds approximately 5,000 plants. If not detected and eliminated by law enforcement operations, that one grow site depletes at least 4.5-million gallons of California’s much-needed water. With approximately 2,000 to 6,000 clandestine trespass grow sites in operation annually in California alone, the impact to America’s water resources is significant.

Mountain lion killed by EPA-banned toxins found in Silicon Valley’s Santa Cruz mountains on a public land DTO trespass marijuana grow site.

In conjunction with extreme water loss are the egregious health risks of ingesting poisoned cannabis, the devastating effects these poisons have on our nation’s water wildlife species and waterways, and the public safety threat DTO crews pose to our outdoor recreating masses. The DTOs propensity for violence and their plethora of firearms, edged weapons, and anti-personnel booby traps throughout grow complexes throughout California and other states is alarming. With game wardens on the jurisdictional forefront of protecting wildlife resources and public safety, especially in remote areas of our wildlands, it was time for us to step up our game and target this threat as a priority.

Just as disturbing, DTO personnel are here illegally and embedded throughout the U.S. to run their clandestine operations. Tens of thousands of cartel operatives are smuggled across our southern border and are responsible for much more than just growing poisoned black market marijuana throughout our nation’s wildlands. They’re also involved in human trafficking, the manufacture and distribution of methamphetamine, gun running to fuel the cartel wars in Mexico, and a plethora of other lucrative crimes. Besides the numerous methods used to cross the U.S. border, the cartels have added to their U.S. infiltration method by building specialized one-way panga boats designed to navigate around the Gulf of Mexico and up the West Coast to deliver processed marijuana, methamphetamine, and people onto American soil. These boats are camouflaged from aerial surveillance and built to handle big loads of product or personnel for successful delivery and distribution through the country.

EPA-banned and highly toxic Metaphos poison used on illegal marijuana plants in DTO trespass grow sites throughout the U.S. One container can kill over 2,500 people if ingested in small doses, kill every fish and other aquatic life for miles of a waterway, and destroy other mammal and birdlife in and near a poisoned grow site.

DTO groups have also been linked to overseas extreme terrorist groups, with evidence of collaboration to smuggle drugs, guns, and even people across the border by land and sea into the U.S. to embed and wreak havoc on our communities. Besides the extreme public safety dangers these groups pose for Americans, I’ve never seen a more environmentally destructive criminal element threatening our nation’s sanctity in 28 years of protecting our country’s wildlife resources.

DTO narco-traffickers are prone to violence as we’ve seen firsthand. By worshiping a unique mix of patron saints, DTO operatives believe their public safety and environmental crimes are sanctioned by these deities and protect them from detection and apprehension efforts from law enforcement teams. Their conviction that these saints spiritually sanction their criminal activity not only justifies, but actually encourages, violence against law enforcement officers and any other individuals that hinder their operations.

For the next eight years following that first gunfight, game wardens throughout California participated in hundreds of allied agency DTO trespass marijuana grow operations. Some of those missions turned deadly when armed and resistant cartel growers would go to guns. We had learned a lot since that first engagement in 2005, this time we were better prepared, and no other officers were injured. We conducted hundreds of hours of advanced tactical training, developed specialized small unit/K9 apprehension tactics, and continued to engender and maintain positive relationships with domestic law enforcement and military special operations units throughout the West Coast.

Vietnam-era anti-personnel punji pit detected by a MET K9 in a DTO trespass marijuana grow complex trail in a northern California National Park

In 2013, all that work paid off when I was privileged to cofound, develop, and lead the CDFW’s first dedicated Marijuana Enforcement Team (MET) aimed at targeting DTO trespass grow operations throughout the west. Fortunately, we have some highly trained, motivated, and experienced game wardens within our ranks who all share a “team first” attitude. Sharing our military/law enforcement spec-ops backgrounds, they were also effectively integrating with other local, state, and federal allied agency partners on these missions throughout California. This was a dream come true for me and my brass, and we were able to build the team with ideal personnel immediately.

The MET is a unique statewide team that excels in hunting and apprehending these wildlife killers with the help of specialized, lifesaving K9s. Without district boundaries and administrative red tape for the first time in our agency’s 150-year history, we’re at our most effective and can respond anywhere at any time when needed for operations.

While the team’s forte is stalking, suspect apprehension, and small unit tactics, the MET is a three-pronged approach unit that also eradicates tons EPA-banned poison-tainted marijuana and reclamates and restores water diversions, water pollution, and other associated environmental damages within their targeted grow complexes each year. With so much black market DTO marijuana grown on pristine public and private lands throughout California and at least 21 other states, another significant part of MET’s mission is outreach and education. Through speaking presentations, select written and visual media projects, allied agency military and law enforcement and civilian personnel training, the MET covers grow site indicator and safety protocol training for personnel likely to encounter these sites during operations.

MET K9s working together on DTO trespass grow apprehension operation in California’s Jack London State Park.

While focused on combating illegal cartel trespass marijuana cultivation operations throughout California, the MET is the CDFW’s Law Enforcement Division’s (LED) go-to tactical unit for any high-risk public safety mission generated throughout the state. Shortly after its inception, I was given the green light to develop LED’s first sniper team, a key component to CDFW’s enhanced tactical capabilities for a wide range of operational needs. Delta Team is trained to operate day or night and can sustain operations anywhere without support or resupply for several days, adding capabilities to the MET previously unheard of.

Given the skill sets, training level, and operational experience of MET team members, the unit is equipped to handle more than just clandestine marijuana grows. While our forte is DTO trespass operations in remote outdoor environments, everyone is SWAT certified and experienced in SWAT-related tactical operations. As a result, the MET has morphed into a rapid-response tactical unit that can deploy in any environment for any high-risk mission our agency demands.

MET’s craft and proficiency includes high-risk indoor entry operations; vehicle interdiction and assaults; urban, rural, and high-altitude rappelling and ascending; horse and mule operations; OHV specialized vehicle operations; active shooter response; man tracking and fugitive recovery; advanced helicopter operations (aerial gunning, spy line, hoist, and short-haul operations); NVG operations; covert entry tactics; advanced arrest, control, and ground-fighting techniques; as well as off-shore marine tactical operations, including large and small vessel interdiction and on water shooting tactics.

Like other domestic law enforcement tactical teams, the MET is ready to integrate with any other agency on domestic security issues, becoming a force multiplier on the homeland. Never more critical in light of the growing threat of extreme terrorist groups wreaking havoc all over the globe, the MET trains for this contingency constantly.

Between the start of our MET’s pilot program in July 2013 up through the end of December 2018, the MET’s production level paints an ugly picture. During our first six years of operations, the unit completed 800 arrest, eradication, and reclamation missions; destroyed 3-million poisoned marijuana plants; seized and destroyed 58,677 pounds (29 tons) of processed marijuana ready for black market sale throughout the U.S.; made 973 felony arrests; seized 601 firearms; removed 899,945 pounds (450 tons) of grow site waste, trash, and other pollutants; recovered and removed 2.35-million feet (437 miles) of black poly-pipe water line; removed 91,728 pounds (46 tons) of fertilizers from our wildlands; and removed 756 gallons of illegal toxic chemicals and 793 water-stealing dams and diversions from DTO grow complexes. Those dams were responsible for stealing approximately 12-billion gallons of our nation’s water mostly during the peak of California’s drought period, costing California tax payers. If not eliminated at the time of operations, they would have taken another 12-billion gallons of much-needed drinking and agricultural irrigation water.

Integrating the MET with CDFW’s offshore patrol boat fleet for homeland security, Panga boat interdiction, and vessel entry training operations in the Pacific Ocean.

While these numbers represent the extremely high level of environmental damage done by the DTOs to our wildlands, waterways, and wildlife, they’re just a fraction of the total impacts occurring throughout the country. Keep in mind these are figures from just the missions CDFW’s MET participated in and not missions documented by other agencies where our MET wasn’t involved. Also, while we’ve gotten a lot better over the last decade at finding, eliminating, and reclamating these DTO grow complexes, we still haven't found all of the DTO-run trespass grow sites throughout California or other parts of the country.

With cannabis legalization and regulation becoming more widespread throughout the country (most recently in California for both medical and recreational use), the MET was specifically designed not to be an anti-cannabis team. Instead, the unit has always been deployed as an outdoor public safety element operating within our nation’s wildlands while engaging an aggressive anti-environmental crime campaign against those posing the biggest threat to our wildlife resources. As a result, the MET has been embraced by a large faction of legitimate cannabis producers throughout the West Coast who share the team’s sentiment for protecting the purity of our country’s waterways, the vitality of our nation’s wildlife, and the environmental stability and safety within public wildlands throughout the U.S.

MET operators with CDFW bighorn sheep biologists conducting a high-altitude reclamation mission in the Inyo National Forest.

Regardless, I still lose count of how many times I’ve been asked, “Now that pot’s legal, you guys are out of a job, right?” Or statements like, “We should just legalize weed so you guys can go do real game warden work.” I wish the answers were black and white, and the issue that simple.

The misnomer that legalizing cannabis will alleviate both the domestic — and cartel — run DTO cannabis black markets and their associated public safety and environmental crimes is a public sentiment I hear everywhere throughout the country. Unfortunately, this has proved not to be the case. As the seven states that have legalized recreational marijuana cultivation (and the additional 17 that sanction medicinal marijuana distribution and use) have discovered, cannabis regulation legislation hasn’t been a cure-all for the dark side of our country’s cannabis issue.

One-way cartel Panga boat from Mexico abandoned along the California coastline with 6,000 pounds of toxically tainted black market marijuana slated for sale throughout the U.S.

In California, for example, we’ve had legally sanctioned medical marijuana cultivation and distribution for over two decades since the passing of Proposition 215 in 1996. In 2016, the Golden State became the seventh state in the union to allow and regulate the cultivation and use of recreational cannabis. Given California is one of only six true Mediterranean climates in the world and the best U.S. state to grow outdoor cannabis almost year-round, it has become the nation’s epicenter for high demand weed. As a result, the lucrative black market for California bud has never been higher.

Proponents of recreational and medicinal legalization argue that the market for DTO trespass marijuana will be eliminated if licensed cannabis is readily available to cannabis consumers and hence thwart DTO grow operations throughout the state. But with the vast majority of DTO trespass marijuana produced in California sold on the black market to Midwest and eastern seaboard states that don’t allow either recreational or medicinal cannabis use, legalization in California in its current form will not stop the DTOs from using the Golden State’s abundant resources to fill nationwide demand for their product.

Since the development of our MET, the nation’s thin green line of conservation officers has never faced a more dangerous and natural resource destructive criminal than DTO wildland operations throughout the country. When asked if the MET is making a difference in this domestic environmental protection and public safety battle, I can honestly answer yes. But have we eliminated the problem and associated threats throughout America’s wildlands? Absolutely not. With the demand for black market cannabis still widespread throughout the country, these threats continue. And constantly progressing as this national threat persists, our MET continues to advance and adapt our tactics, training, and operational protocols to combat these challenges effectively. Since our inception, the MET continues to evolve, maintain a fill and flow mindset of adaptability, teamwork, and a never-quit attitude. We’ll continue protecting our citizens and wildlife resources as long as the problem exists throughout America.

To learn more about Lt. John Nores and his work, check out this video on RECOILtv:

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