Antidrug officials in the Northwest have discovered that marijuana growers are cultivating and concealing illegal crops on a large scale among grapevines in Washington state.
Since July 8, law-enforcement agencies in Washington's Yakima Valley have seized from the region's vineyards more than 200,000 marijuana plants, with an estimated street value of more than $165 million. The agencies say they expect to find more of the plants in vineyards as the marijuana-growing season nears its conclusion in late September. The Yakima Valley is about 150 miles southeast of Seattle.
Police say they believe Mexican cartels are tapping into networks of Hispanic immigrant workers who go to the Yakima Valley to pick fruits and vegetables.
In most cases, vineyard owners weren't aware of the illegal farming operations, said Washington state Patrol Sgt. Rick Beghtol, supervisor for a multiagency antidrug task force. Many vineyard owners don't tend their vines, instead contracting with migrant workers and small cultivation and harvesting companies, he said. This year, law-enforcement agencies have raided 13 vineyard operations and arrested 33 suspects, all of them Hispanic immigrant workers, he said. Most were caught on the premises, he said.
Police have found marijuana plants on farms growing grapes under contract with Welch's Food Inc., the National Grape Cooperative Inc. and J.M. Smucker Co. Sgt. Beghtol said the companies held contracts with 13 raided vineyards. A Welch's spokesman said: "No grapes from the vineyards in question were used in any of our products." She said Welch's is cooperating with county authorities and the Drug Enforcement Administration "to ensure the protection and safety of the vineyards and our consumers."
Spokesmen for the Grape Cooperative and for Smucker say they are working with police and that none of the grapes in question have been used. All of the illegal operations discovered have been in vineyards growing grapes for food or juice.
Vineyards are the latest battlefield in a long-running war between law enforcement and drug-trafficking organizations in the Pacific Northwest. For years, authorities say, suspected drug rings have tracked into forests and secluded cornfields in the region to conceal illegal marijuana farms.
Washington-state authorities began noticing a shift into vineyards this summer. Until this year, only a few small marijuana operations had been found in vineyards, said Lt. Richard Wiley of the Washington State Patrol narcotics division.
Authorities have found a few such stashes in other Western states. The DEA and local police seized about 10,000 marijuana plants from a Selma, Calif., vineyard in June, for example. But the DEA said the biggest discoveries have been in Washington, particularly in the Yakima Valley, where vineyards cover more than 30,000 acres.
Vineyards provide the camouflage and irrigation that marijuana growers seek. Marijuana planted just under grape trellises is hard to spot from the air, Sgt. Beghtol said. And the farmers often plant near the center of vast vineyards, where the crops are hard to find on foot.
About 300,000 marijuana plants were seized in Washington in 2007, according to a DEA spokeswoman. Lt. Wiley and Sgt. Beghtol say they expect the number to swell to nearly 500,000 this year, with nearly half that coming from vineyards.
Vicky Scharlau, executive director of the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers, said that because of the increased scrutiny in the region, she doesn't expect many more marijuana operations. "It's obscene and hideous what they are doing," said Ms. Scharlau. "But it's just too obvious now for these rogues to continue. The vineyards are being watched with much more scrutiny now."