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Hmong pot growers fight attempts to shut them down

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.

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.

Lee's house, unusual because it is a permanent structure, sits in the center of the 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."

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 press 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 Times show more than 100 of the approximately 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.