Police: Illegal pot crop an environmental threat

Illegal marijuana growing presents a threat to the environment, according to a leading police administrators' organization.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police condemned the actions of marijuana cultivators, stating the operations have caused "severe" damage to the environment.

The association, which advises law enforcement on policy matters, also stated that more resources are needed to protect officers and civilians from violence associated with the operations and to reduce environmental damage from the fields, which can cost up to $15,000 per acre to clean up.

Last month, state police spotted and eradicated a marijuana growing operation in a rural area near the Woodbury-Watertown line. Chicken wire surrounded the base of at least one plant to protect it.

Police didn't expect to make an arrest in that operation and they didn't disclose the exact location of the field.

In the Woodbury operation, police spotted the plants by helicopter, then moved in to seize the crop. A few weeks after that bust, state police found nearly 100 full-grown plants in Harwinton near the Torrington line that were awaiting harvest. They arrested a man found nearby and seized the crop, which was growing near power lines.

"We've infiltrated a number of fields, small and large alike," said Lt. J. Paul Vance, a state police spokesman.

The chief's association highlighted the impact that operations can have on the environment, stating that growing operations have been found in 67 national forests in 20 states.

Cultivators in large-scale operations have used banned pesticides on their illegal fields, eroded soil, diverted and polluted water supplies and left behind waste that authorities are forced to clean up, the association said.

The diversion of water and chemical pollution to support the fields has led to the killing of wildlife and has damaged ecosystems, the association stated.

This kind of damage has not been experienced in Connecticut -- at least not yet.

Dennis Schain, a spokesman for the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said enforcement officers have come across people trying to grow marijuana outdoors and have made arrests, but the operations have been on a "pretty small scale."

"The plants get ripped up and nature takes its course," he said.

Schain said officers have yet to encounter major use of pesticides on the fields they have discovered.

The seizure operations in Woodbury and Harwinton went smoothly, but in other states some growers have armed themselves with guns and have booby-trapped the entrances to their fields, which are often found in out-of-the way locations.

The association pointed out that some fields have been rigged with "strategically placed" jars of acid, shotgun shells rigged to planks so they'll detonate when stepped on and even devices that shock intruders with electricity.

Vance said troopers are aware that traps could be used to guard fields -- and could injure innocent bystanders -- but he couldn't recall any devices being found on Connecticut fields discovered by police.

Federal agents and local police eradicate hundreds of thousands of plants on an annual basis, costing taxpayers in manpower to detect and destroy the fields and in cleanup, which entails returning the sites back to their natural state.

In California alone, authorities had dismantled more than 330 sites as of December. Those operations have led authorities to determine that violence, including robberies and home invasions, increases in the areas surrounding the fields.

The association cited the National Office of National Drug Control Policy in stating that in 2010, authorities in California and Oregon reported at least 11 incidents of armed confrontations or officer-involved shootings during the investigation of marijuana fields.

"For example, in 2011, 12 homicides were related to marijuana cultivation in California, with six of those occurring on public lands and six related to the growing of marijuana under the pretext of supplying medicinal users," the association stated.

The association also recommended raising public awareness about the negative impact the fields have on communities.