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Siskiyou official calls for state aid to fight illegal operations

PAUL ELIAS The Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — A Siskiyou County state senator has asked California Gov. Jerry Brown to help deal with a dramatic proliferation of illegal marijuana farms by declaring a state of emergency.

County supervisors earlier declared a local emergency after the sheriff said his department is outmanned by the illegal farmers, who some residents complain are wrecking the environment and attracting violent crime. Emergency declarations give government officials flexibility to quickly react to natural disasters and other catastrophes and can lead to grants and other financial help.

Republican state Sen. Ted Gaines, who represents the county, said Wednesday that he formally asked the governor for the emergency declaration to compel state officials to help Sheriff Jon Lopey in cracking down on the illegal farms. Gaines said that could include making the California National Guard available to help.

 Gaines recently toured the county by helicopter with the sheriff, who says there are more than 2,000 illegal farms in the county along the California-Oregon state line.

 "The grows are vast and numerous, and it's indicative of a community that is overrun by unlawful behavior, and of a criminal class that is in complete contempt of the law," Gaines said.

 Kelly Huston, the deputy director of the governor's Officer of Emergency Services, said the agency is reviewing the senator's request. Huston said there are ways state officials can help even if the governor doesn't declare an emergency.

 Lopey said the county is "overwhelmed" by the illegal farmers, many of whom he says live in tents and other temporary shelters and some are diverting streams, using illicit fertilizers and degrading the environment. Lopey said three farmers died of carbon monoxide poisoning caused by faulty heaters last winter.

Lopey last month worked with federal officials to arrest two farmers who he says offered him a $1 million bribe to shield their plants and workers from law enforcement scrutiny.

Lured by inexpensive land and privacy, marijuana farmers are flocking to rural counties in Northern California seeking to cash in on growing demand in the state and across the country. Many farmers are squatting illegally on state and federal lands in the region as well.

California was the first state to legalize the medicinal use of marijuana in 1999 and voters in November legalized the recreational use of pot. State officials are drafting regulations ahead of a Jan. 1 deadline to start issuing licenses to legally grow and sell marijuana for recreational use.

"We need all the help we can get," Lopey said. "Our quality of life is being impacted negatively."