A Hmong community turned out to be quite efficient growers of cannabis. County officials were not happy.
SISKIYOU COUNTY, Calif. — The narcotics officer stood on a windswept ridge near the Oregon border and surveyed the fields cut into the hills below, a landscape resembling a lost piece of wine country.
The terraces of Siskiyou County, however, were planted in cannabis.
More than 1,500 Hmong farmers in the past two years have poured into this remote county, so vast it encompasses two western mountain ranges.
By the second growing season in 2016, satellite images showed nearly 1,000 parcels laden with dark green crops. Depending on whose yield estimates and black market prices you rely on, the Hmong’s Siskiyou crop had a value as high as $1 billion.
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Where it was bound for, the growers would not say.
Mouying Lee, a businessman whose name surfaces in every facet of the Siskiyou marijuana story, said with a deadpan delivery that his clansmen came here “for the feng shui” of the mountains. He pointed out that most of the landholders are elderly: Former factory workers and mechanics from Wisconsin. Old aunts and uncles.
The abundant crop is grown for personal use, Lee said. For poultices and shower rinses. For broth and tea.
County officials don’t buy it. They say that Siskiyou is being forced into the nation’s $49 billion black market for marijuana, sparking a modern range war.
So much land has changed hands so quickly in cash deals that Sheriff Jon Lopey is convinced he is fighting the hidden hand of organized crime.
Land speculators more than a half-century ago carved Siskiyou County’s unbuildable high desert and mountain slopes into half a dozen large subdivisions with “vacation” parcels — many of which did not sell and later wound up trading for $500 an acre on eBay.
Mount Shasta Vista rose along the western edge of the valley, a floor of volcanic debris crusted by a thin growth of stunted juniper and bitterbrush. Southerly breezes catch glacier-capped Shasta to the east, and Mount Eddy on the Trinity Range to the west, squeezing through the valley in gusts that commonly reach 70 mph.
Satellite images in 2014 of the fallow development, with its 1,641 lots and mostly absentee owners, showed a few houses, some rusted junk and two marijuana patches.
The Hmong began arriving in earnest in early 2015.
A third of the Mount Shasta Vista parcels bore Hmong names by the end of 2016. They sold at five times their assessed value, and the subdivision’s moonscape supported 508 telltale gardens of green.
With them came makeshift fences, trash piles and swimming pools converted into cheap water tanks. The newcomers hauled in soil, erected drying racks from plastic pipe and slept in plywood sheds. If there was power, it came from a generator, and a portable toilet stood sentry at each gate — sometimes along with an American flag.
A similar scene played out in four other developments throughout the county.
Lee’s house, unusual because it is a permanent structure, sits in the center of the 2 1/2-acre plots dedicated to growing marijuana. Six cars and three water trucks are parked out front.
Lee is a child of the Hmong refugee camps in Thailand. He said he worked in Fresno as a computer programmer and contractor before joining the migration to Siskiyou County in 2016 to build the small wood sheds that growers live in.
California permits marijuana cultivation for personal medical use, but leaves local governments to decide how much — if any — to allow.
It took a single growing season in 2015 for Siskiyou County supervisors to ban outdoor cultivation, punishable by a fine. The crops could also be destroyed if authorities determined they were for commercial sale.
As unease with marijuana grew into complaints and then scrutiny from county supervisors, Lee organized a community collective. Following the first harvest of 2015, the Hmong council handed out frozen turkeys as a gesture of goodwill.
When that didn’t calm the waters, Lee retained lawyers from the legal group Pier 5 — champions of controversial clients, such as the Black Panthers and San Francisco Chinatown mobsters.
Public records show Lee and a relative, Vince Wavue Lee, tracked down the absentee owners of more than 50 lots, paid them above-market prices, and then transferred the properties as “gifts” to other Hmong.
They were friends and family members who didn’t like to conduct business in English, the two said. Sometimes they fronted the money, trusting they would be paid back. They said they made no profit.
Mouying Lee said the subdivisions in Siskiyou County are the start of a new home for his people.
“To see the image of the mountain form, this is a better place for the elders,” he said. He likened the volcanic ranges to the karst outcrops and verdant jungle of northern Laos.
“It is like Long Tieng,” he said. “It is the dream town.”
Long Tieng was the CIA’s largest airbase in Laos during what became known as the Secret War.
Its single runway served as a staging point for helicopter raids and Air America supply drops to Hmong hill fighters during the Vietnam War. Wittingly or not, it also was a hub for moving the opium that Hmong highland villagers rotated through their corn crops. A city of more than 30,000 Hmong sprang up around the cloud-shrouded base, with mud streets and haphazard sheds built from flattened fuel drums.
When the Americans pulled out in 1975, thousands of Hmong collaborators were slaughtered or fled to refugee camps in Thailand. Ultimately, about 300,000 found asylum in the United States, settling in close-knit enclaves largely spread among three states: Wisconsin, Minnesota and California.
Some Hmong community leaders are distressed to see struggling immigrants again grabbing at what seems like easy cash.
Chat boards carry tales of growers earning $10,000 a month. Entire family clans are invested in the marijuana operations.
Aunts, cousins and elders put their names on deeds or show up at harvest. One 2015 raid on a Siskiyou County marijuana processing house found 23 people inside, ages 19 to 77.
California paved the way for the black market in 1996, legalizing medical marijuana in terms so loose that growers can remain on the right side of the law right up until they take their crop to market. By 2010, the state grew enough cannabis that it could provide more than three-quarters of the illegal marijuana supply in the country. That’s enough to make marijuana California’s largest export commodity, eclipsing almonds, dairy, walnuts, wine and pistachios combined.
Large trespass growing on public lands remains a law-enforcement target. But a 2013 federal memo promised to ignore small-scale trade states where marijuana is legal, and California set no limits on what constitutes personal use.
The result: the ubiquitous 99-plant crop, enough marijuana to keep 420 daily smokers supplied for a year, but one plant below the threshold for a five-year federal prison term. There are now hundreds of them in Siskiyou County.
State and federal agencies would not comment on the role of the Hmong in the black market. A 2010 report by the High Intensity Drug Task Force, however, noted that Asian trafficking organizations — Hmong and Laotian specifically — dominated private property cannabis production.
Spurred by complaints of slat fences, water trucks tearing up roads, fertilizer runoff and trash, Siskiyou County supervisors banned outdoor cultivation in November 2015.
“They treat the Hmong as unwelcome,” Mouying Lee said. “We make the economy grow: Wal-Mart. Tractor Supply. But still they are ignorant about the people.”
The lawyers at Pier 5 peppered officials with letters threatening litigation if Siskiyou County enforced the ban. Lee and his supporters collected signatures to put the marijuana ban to a countywide vote on the June 2016 ballot. They registered Hmong farmers to vote.
County Clerk Colleen Setzer, doubling as the county registrar, said she was alarmed by the voter cards turned in. Scores registered at the same house — 55 at Lee’s address. Nearly 200 listed no home address at all, or the parcel number of a vacant lot.
For six months, Setzer forwarded her suspicions of voter fraud to the state. Investigators from Secretary of State Alex Padilla’s office did not show up until six days before the June vote to question 39 newly registered voters. The investigators sought a sheriff’s escort when they learned they had to go into the marijuana fields.
They could not find most of the 39 voters. The search was described in news releases issued by Pier 5 lawyers as “county officials armed with assault rifles” who “threatened Hmong citizens … if they attempted to vote.”
Lori Shellenberger, a voting strategist with the American Civil Liberties Union in San Diego, said: “It was like Mississippi in the 1960s.”
Many of the allegations of voter intimidation turned out to be false. Even so, two days before the Siskiyou vote, Shellenberger sent a message to Padilla’s chief of staff saying the secretary of state looked bad investigating minority voters and supporting the sheriff’s actions.
The next morning, Padilla’s office switched directions, sending an emergency request to the U.S. Justice Department seeking election monitors in Siskiyou. It diverted its own poll watchers to the far north county.
The initiative failed, leaving the growing ban in place.
Voting records obtained by the Los Angeles Times show more than 100 of the roughly 600 Hmong voters registered in Siskiyou County have mailing addresses elsewhere.
Setzer said the secretary of state’s office has not told her the fate of the investigation. The agency denied requests by the Times for details.
The old gold mining town of Yreka for decades sold water to anyone wanting it. But in July 2016 the Town Council declared the Hmong farmers’ use “undesired” and cut off sales to those living outside of city limits.
Still the growers came to Siskiyou.
State forestry agents ticketed those who lighted cooking fires in the high-danger scrub, and California Highway Patrol officers pulled over unpermitted water trucks.
Still more growers came.
By midsummer 2016, Lopey, the sheriff, concluded that fining the growers was useless. Sheriff’s volunteers teamed up with the county prosecutor’s office and state Fish and Game officials to raid the fields.
Armed officers — seasoned by years of chasing Mexican drug cartels through public forests — swooped in on elderly Asian couples eating breakfast in their sheds and trailers.
“I was frightened worse than the Vietnam War, when my parents were trying to protect us,” Kao Vang said in an affidavit filed in litigation against the county. Vang said she hid in a bush while deputies cut down marijuana and took her husband to jail, and remained there long after they left.
They cleared as many as three fields a day, raiding 113 grows in four months, seizing generators and water pumps and destroying 9,200 cannabis plants and 3,000 pounds of marijuana. Fifty Hmong were taken to jail.
The sheriff’s crusade made him controversial. The harshest detractors called him a thug.
Three times the lawyers at Pier 5 filed a federal civil rights suit against the sheriff and Padilla, alleging racial persecution. Three times a federal judge threw the claim out, ruling finally this month that there was no evidence Siskiyou County’s marijuana ordinance was anything other than a reaction to the explosion in cannabis cultivation.
Lopey — a former Marine who after his tour in the Philippines joined the Army Reserve to staff a civilian affairs desk in Kabul — harbors no sense of gray in the law. That includes protecting his county from “dope,” even as the state prepares to allow commercial sales beginning in January.
“These people are coming in here. They have no respect for us. They have no respect for our laws,” he said. “Then they have the nerve to come here to grow 200 plants and potentially a $2 million crop.”
The summer siege resulted in fewer than two dozen criminal cases. After Californians in November made illegal marijuana cultivation a misdemeanor, county judges dismissed those.
Siskiyou County’s district attorney said it is almost impossible to build a felony case that will stand. After two years of interdictions, seizures and arrests, he is no closer to figuring out the controlling forces behind the marijuana surge.
All that is left, he said, is to seize and destroy, “to make the nest uncomfortable.”
By Lopey’s estimate, the raids destroyed as much as 20 percent of the 2016 crop. The rest pops up now and then on roads headed east.
A hard season
After most of the growers returned to Minnesota or Fresno for the winter, Bao Kelly Xiong and her sister, Mee Xiong hung on.
It had been a hard season. A third of the 99 cannabis plants on the land bought with family money had died. The fear of raids weighed so heavily that Bao affixed her medical marijuana prescription to a board outside — facing up so it would be visible to narcotics officers conducting flyovers.
The sisters lived among the tall cannabis they tended, in low huts of black plastic and empty chicken manure bags lashed with orange baling twine, their mattresses on the ground. At night they eased their aches with a rinse of marijuana stems and leaves steeped in water.
When Bao left camp one November morning to drive to Sacramento, Mee did not see her off. Too much marijuana bath, Bao thought. She returned that night to find Mee still in her shelter, beneath a thick pile of blankets, dressed in two layers of pajamas and a sweatsuit. Beside her was a charcoal brazier used for warmth. Its fumes had killed her.
Three weeks later, a 56-year-old man collapsed as he rose in an old trailer warmed by a generator beneath its floor. A third death was in December, a Laotian man poisoned by the generator beside his shed.
It was five months before Bao Kelly returned to Mount Shasta Vista. She keened as she piled Mee’s mattress and a small blue suitcase into the back of a borrowed pickup for a run to the county dump.
Then she stayed on for the next season.
Lopey’s posse came down hard after winter, raiding 52 plots in July — triple the pace of 2016.
To build support for his campaign, the sheriff has given tours of the marijuana fields, taken a state senator overhead by helicopter and driven a reporter down the bumpy roads at a fast clip, pointing out the high fences and pickups with license plates from Minnesota and Wisconsin. A request for emergency state aid to fight illegal marijuana growing is sitting on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk.
He wore a wire to record two growers who allegedly offered him $1 million to grant protection to their Missouri-bound crops. The two were charged this month on suspicion of bribery.
“This is war,” the sheriff said.