Washington • The Senate's immigration bill now includes tougher criminal penalties for growing marijuana on public lands after the Judiciary Committee unanimously accepted an amendment offered by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, on Monday.
The new criminal penalties largely target Mexican cartels that for years have set up one-season marijuana farms on Forest Service and BLM land throughout the western United States, including throughout southern Utah.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, explained the amendment as Hatch was still traveling from Utah to Washington, D.C., as the committee debated amendments to the criminal code.
"We need to enhance penalties for marijuana cultivation on public lands, that will ensure fewer drugs enter the market and protect our natural resources," Lee said.
Hatch's plan, drafted with assistance from Drug Enforcement Administration agents in Utah, would create a new aggravated penalty for growing marijuana on federal lands and impose a sentence that must be served after the criminal served time for an underlying charge for manufacturing or distributing the drug.
It also would create new penalties if people were caught diverting water, using certain fertilizers or using weapons to protect the marijuana plants.
"I have no interest in helping someone steal our federal lands, steal our natural resources to do something that is still illegal," said Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.