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Hmong pot growers in Siskiyou County seeking identity, profit — or both 9-10-17

CRIMINAL, Marijuana, Sheriff Jon Lopey, Siskiyou Sheriff's report

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 last 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.

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.

Welcome to Mount Shasta Vista

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 handful of 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 2½-acre plots dedicated to growing marijuana. Six cars and three water trucks are parked out front.

The stout 43-year-old 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 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 pair 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.”

The roots of the black market

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, some 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.

“It is an open secret,” said a Hmong leader in Sacramento, seeking anonymity because his past candor resulted in death threats.

In his eyes, marijuana is the new opium.

He also struggles with the desire to create a new Hmong enclave in the mountains — a drive he believes holds his people back from assimilating. “There is a reason after 40 years we are still on welfare,” he said.

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 grows on public lands remain a law enforcement target. But a 2013 federal memo promised to ignore small-scale trade in pot-legal states, and California set no limits on what constitutes personal use.

The result: the ubiquitous 99-plant grow, 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.

STILL  MORE  — with photos go to:


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