Washington • Somewhere in the remote wilderness of southern Utah on land controlled by the federal government, members of a Mexican cartel are putting new marijuana plants in the earth in hopes of reaping a multimillion dollar harvest this fall.
And it eats at the Drug Enforcement Administration's Sue Thomas.
"They have taken over our public lands. They have no stake in Utah," she said. "They are here to use and abuse our public lands for their own profit," she said.
These illegal flash farms are a pervasive problem in the western United States, leading federal agents such as Thomas to work with Sen. Orrin Hatch on a plan to boost criminal penalties for those caught tending or harvesting the illegal plants.
Their discussions began two years ago, but Hatch, R-Utah, now thinks he has found a way to turn their proposal into law attach it to the comprehensive immigration-reform bill making its way through the Senate.
Hatch plans to offer his amendment this week as the Senate Judiciary Committee continues to debate the legislation, which involves everything from border-security enhancements to a path to citizenship for those here illegally.
"Over the last few years we've seen a significant increase in the violence associated with this illegal activity, including armed watchmen and booby-traps," Hatch said. "This is threatening the safety of communities across our state, and increasing the penalties of anyone caught doing these activities will go a long way towards stopping them."
Enhanced penalties • His amendment, drafted in consultation with the DEA office in Utah, would create an aggravated penalty for growing marijuana on federal lands and require that any sentence be served on top of time for manufacturing or distributing the drug. The length of that sentence depends on the nature of the case, the amount of marijuana confiscated and the person's prior criminal history.
Hatch's proposal would also add new criminal penalties if the person was caught using poisons or unauthorized fertilizers, diverting water, setting booby-traps or possessing a gun at the farm.
Thomas, a supervisory special agent with the Utah DEA, thanked Hatch for his efforts and said the proposal would help combat the pot farms, which overwhelmingly are controlled by Mexican cartels and harvested using workers who are not authorized to be in the country.
"It is so important to us and it is a public safety issue. It is an officer-safety issue," she said.
But at least one law enforcement official doesn't believe Hatch's amendment will slow down the marijuana farms on Forest Service and BLM lands.
"It is not going to hurt us, but I don't think it is going to do a whole lot to change the individuals coming in. They are coming in and growing marijuana because it is profitable," said Washington County Sheriff Cory Pulsipher. "It is simple economics."
Pulsipher said he couldn't properly investigate marijuana farms found in his jurisdiction without the help of Thomas and the DEA, particularly in recent years
Law enforcement seized nearly 83,000 marijuana plants on Utah's public lands in 2008 and that number jumped to more than 106,000 in 2010 before dropping to just 13,000 plants in 2012.
Pulsipher attributes the drop to the drought, while Thomas said a major bust in 2011, which resulted in the arrest of 38 people, disrupted the cartel's operations. Hatch first got involved after that bust, which also led law enforcement to produce a video warning people to stay away if they stumble on a marijuana farm while hiking or camping.
Legal status • For Pulispher, other portions of the immigration bill are likely to put a bigger dent in the pot farms than lengthening prison sentences, though he notes that he doesn't oppose Hatch's idea.
He said beefing up border security and offering legal status to those here illegally would allow police to root out the criminal elements within the immigrant community.
And as Congress continues to debate such a bill, the growing season is well under way. Pulsipher said people have likely spent weeks preparing plots on federal land and are now in the planting phase. Each marijuana plant can fetch about $2,000 in wholesale profits and the farms often involve thousands of plants each, harvested in late August or early September.
"They are up there now," he said. "We've got information on potential grows they are working on now."