The nation's war on drugs took on the look of a real war here Monday when regular U.S. Army troops, on orders from the White House, joined federal raids of suspected marijuana gardens in the King Range National Conservation Area about 175 miles north of San Francisco.
The raids, which also included about 100 National Guard troops ferried in Army Blackhawk helicopters and more than 30 armed federal agents, signal the start of an unusual and controversial campaign by the Bush Administration to use active-duty military personnel in non-emergency domestic law-enforcement operations.
Dave Renner, sheriff of Humboldt County where the raids took place, expressed displeasure with the way the federal troops "stormed in," and area residents protested the "invasion" of nearly 200 armed soldiers in camouflage fatigues and face paint as frightening for their children and horses.
Involvement by the military in domestic law enforcement is common in Third World nations, but runs counter to longstanding tradition in the United States. Recently, however, frustrated federal officials have talked often of using the military as a source of cheap manpower and abundant technology in the war on drugs.
The Army troops used Monday, and scheduled to continue their raids until Aug. 10, were from the 7th Infantry Division (Light), a Ft. Ord-based unit that saw action in the Panama invasion last December.
Federal officials declined to say exactly what they netted in the "Operation Green Sweep" raids, but noted that their main target was not individual marijuana plants but the water tanks, irrigation systems and other infrastructure set up on public lands to facilitate the growing of the illegal crop.
Ed Hastey, state director of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, said that Army pilots and personnel were unarmed, but National Guard troops were allowed to carry M-16 automatic rifles. BLM rangers and other law enforcement officers carried their usual side arms and shotguns.
Despite assurances from Hastey and others that care was being taken to insulate local ranchers, sportsmen and artisans from the raids, the use of military weapons and low-flying Army aircraft sparked a demonstration by several dozen angry, sign-waving residents at the operation base camp.
Some in the crowd told of anxious encounters with soldiers on foot and in the air as they scouted for marijuana patches.
Blossom Edwards, 17, said that after seeing a man with a weapon run through the woods, she came upon five or six others lying motionless in some leaves.
"They were pointing their guns at me," she said. "Every weapon--every barrel. I said, 'Hey, who are you? What is going on? Stop, you're scaring me,' but they wouldn't talk to me, wouldn't say a thing--and wouldn't take their guns off me."
She left unharmed, she said.
Undersheriff Tom Heilmann said that although "it's perfectly all right with us" if the federal government polices its own land, he wished it would be in a less "abrasive" fashion.
Christopher Brong, the BLM special-agent-in-charge, said from the raiders' air operations headquarters in Arcata that efforts are being made to ease the effect on local residents.
"We recognize these helicopters are an inconvenience to local residents," he said. "But we believe that these marijuana gardens are as much or a bigger threat to both visitors and local residents than helicopter noise."
Heilmann said the county declined an offer to join in the raids, opting to save its limited budget for the state-run Campaign Against Marijuana Planting later in the summer. That program, now approaching its eighth year of raiding mature marijuana crops, also includes the Bureau of Land Mangement but no military personnel.
The Humboldt County crackdown represents the first of what is expected to be a series of major raids this summer as the federal government takes aim at a domestic marijuana crop whose size has become a major embarrassment for the Bush Administration's war on drugs.
A new Drug Enforcement Administration report puts the size of the U.S. crop at 5,500 metric tons last year--triple the yield just four years earlier. At least half the total is believed cultivated on federal lands, where growers operate to avoid sanctions that could otherwise lead to confiscation of their own property.
According to federal experts, the boom has made marijuana the nation's No. 1 cash crop, with farm-gate receipts estimated at more than $13 billion a year. At street prices, according to DEA expert John P. Sutton, the business is worth "$20 billion to $30 billion . . . at minimum."
The boom has inspired charges of hypocrisy from the coca-growing nations of Latin America, angry that the United States pressures them to stamp out cocaine production while unable to get a grip on its home-grown equivalent.
Determined to set a better example, the Bush Administration has doubled its anti-marijuana budget this year to $18 million, with another doubling proposed for next year.
"This is the first one, and there may be more coming," said Cy Jamison, director of the Bureau of Land Management. "These lands are for the general public (and not) just the drug-growing public."
The participation by active-duty soldiers represents the first time these military personnel have been deployed in marijuana raids in the continental United States. Soldiers in Hawaii earlier this year played a limited role in operations on state lands there, and Navy aircraft have been used to survey that state's marijuana crop, according to a senior Administration official.
Once the nation's leading producer of marijuana, California has declined in importance in the face of the Campaign Against Marijuana Growers, an aggressive state government enforcement effort that has shrunk the crop by about two-thirds in its seven years. Federal officials believe its output now trails behind Hawaii, Kentucky and Tennessee and is about even with Missouri and Arkansas.
U.S.-produced marijuana was estimated last year to account for at least 25% of the domestic supply. The official estimate of the American market share declined this year to 10% as a result of a major revision of federal figures on Mexico's marijuana crop, with a new survey putting its size at nearly 10 times previous reports.
But federal officials continue to believe that the high potency of U.S. marijuana--with eight times the kick of what was widely smoked in the 1960s--makes it far and away the favorite of millions of Americans who smoke what remains the nation's most widely used illegal drug.
Times staff writer Douglas Jehl in Washington contributed to this report.