Marijuana growing on public land provides a risk for hikers, hunters and bikers

When marijuana is illegal, it is often planted on park land as a way to shield producers from liability, but this puts hikers, bikers and hunters who go off the beaten path at risk.

In the last few years there have been a couple of marijuana fields on public land in Athens County, Athens County Sheriff Rodney Smith said. Growers like public land because it limits their liability. The crop can’t be identified to any specific person.

“However, they still take measures to protect their interests,” Smith said, referring to booby trapping the grow site.

Jud Burkett, outdoor and fitness reporter in St. George, Utah for The Spectrum, is aware of a number of marijuana grows on public lands over the years on both park land and land that is part of the Bureau of Land Management. There is risk for those who find grows, he said.

The local discoveries were made both by law enforcement flying over the public parks in the county and by hikers or hunters who found something, he said.

“They typically send us a picture that says they found something unusual,” Smith said.

Burkett’s comment below relates to the idea of safety.

The sheriff’s office hasn’t thought much about enforcement at any potential fields if marijuana is legalized, he said.

“I’m sure we’ll cross that bridge if we get to it,” Smith said.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources, which oversees state parks, declined to provide specifics about marijuana grows on state park land in Ohio.

However, Kenneth J. Fitz, executive administrator of law enforcement for the ODNR Division of Wildlife, said they do find some fields in wildlife areas.  

“We do find marijuana grows on wildlife areas, some of them quite large,” he said. “Usually they are relatively small however. They occur all across the state.”

Marijuana growing isn’t the only drug-related activity that occurs on state park land.

“We have also encountered meth labs, or the remains of meth labs that are dumped,” Fitz said.

Both Burkett and Smith talked about how marijuana grows on public lands are generally designed to be in locations that are as remote as possible.

Smith said he believes that legalizing marijuana in any form within the state will actually enhance the black market.

Those who sell illegally are not going to stop dealing, he said. It’s possible they would move on to selling cocaine, heroin or prescription pills, which are currently considered larger problems in the county.

“There is a lot of value in marijuana; it’s big money,” Smith said.

The legalization of marijuana in Colorado hasn’t done away with the black market for the product in Colorado, said Thomas Gorman, director of the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. The Rocky Mountain HIDTA coordinates local, state and federal law enforcement efforts against drug trafficking in multiple counties in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.

Groups still grow marijuana on public lands, he emphasized.

“It’s mostly within national forest land,” Gorman said. “The fields are typically tended by Mexicans who are paid very little and camp out by the grows.”

Typically, these grows on public property are found by someone from the public and not law enforcement, he said.

Coming across one is a dangerous situation because the boss isn’t going to be happy to lose that much profit, Gorman said.

“The assumption is that if someone sees that grow that even if they’re not a cop, they’re going to call the cops,” he said.

The idea that if marijuana became legal, the black market for the product would go away hasn’t happened, Gorman said.

“What happened was the black market was able to raise their prices and still be below the legal market,” he said. “We’ve still got (illegal) marijuana coming in from California.”

Marijuana used to sell for $125 an ounce on the black market, but now it might be $150 an ounce because the cost for legal marijuana is $250 to $385 an ounce, Gorman said.

In addition, there have been other changes related to the legalization in Colorado. There are a number of people who will buy in Colorado and take the product elsewhere, he said.

“Colorado has become the black market for at least 40 other states that we’ve identified,” Gorman said.

However, as Burkett notes below, the impact of Colorado to neighboring states remains unclear.

Anyone who is interested in the issue of marijuana legalization should either comment on this story or on Twitter using the #marijuanaohio2016.d.getElementsByTagName(‘head’)[0].appendChild(s);

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Burton Speakman
Burton Speakman is a Ph.D candidate at Ohio University. He worked in the newspaper industry for 13 years as a reporter and editor.

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