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McClatchy Newspapers: Bill would increase penalties for drug production on federal lands

July 1, 2010
In The News

By Michael Doyle

The drug gangsters who grow marijuana and cook meth in Sierra Nevada forests would face stiffer penalties under a bill introduced Wednesday by a San Joaquin Valley lawmaker.

Amid fears that public lands have become riddled by illicit drug plots, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, authored a bill to impose 10-year prison sentences for drug production in national parks, national forests and other federal properties.

"There are a lot of dangers up in the forests," Nunes said Wednesday, "and I think this will make a dent in that."

The bill also doubles to 10 years the sentence for using hazardous materials in drug production on federal lands, and requires the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy to prepare a "strategy to combat drug trafficking on public lands."

The bill is not free, nor is it necessarily going to become law.

Longer prison sentences, such as those imposed by the Nunes bill, impose new incarceration costs. Taxpayers spend an average of $25,895 a year for every federal inmate, according to a 2009 Bureau of Prisons estimate.

The bill itself has a potentially long road ahead of it, partly because some lawmakers have grown increasingly skeptical about the value of mandatory minimum sentences. Los Angeles Democrat Maxine Waters, who is as liberal as Nunes is conservative, has introduced her own bill that would give judges more leeway in sentencing drug defendants.

"Mandatory drug sentences have utterly failed to achieve Congress's goals," Waters declared when she introduced her bill.

Waters has 37 co-sponsors for her bill. Nunes introduced his bill with 10 co-sponsors, short of what he'll need to succeed in a Democratic-controlled Congress.

"If we take over the majority, I believe this bill will move," Nunes said.

The nine-page bill undoubtedly sends a signal. San Joaquin Valley law enforcement officers and elected officials alike have been increasingly raising alarms about drug production on public lands.

Last year, for instance, Fresno County law enforcement officers in Operation Save Our Sierra ripped up an estimated 400,000 marijuana plants in and around the Sierra and Sequoia national forests.

The operation also led to the arrest of 103 people.

The year before the Fresno County operation, in 2008, officers destroyed more than 7,400 marijuana plants found over the course of several days in the Stanislaus National Forest.

And on federal Bureau of Land Management property in El Dorado County, investigators last year uncovered a flourishing garden said to have 33,000 marijuana plants.

Statewide, in recent years, more than two-thirds of the marijuana plants destroyed throughout California have been found on state and federal public lands. Beyond the fact that 40 percent of California is owned by the federal government, investigators say drug traffickers like the remoteness of the national forests.