GRASS VALLEY -- At the height of the harvest season, it appears Nevada County farmers can make a lot more money from marijuana than anything else.
And the amount of pot seized is spiking this year, driven in part by stepped-up enforcement.
Illegally-grown marijuana seized in Nevada County through August this year appears, conservatively, to be worth between $123 million and $205 million, based on federal estimates of crop value and local figures on plants confiscated. That figure is based on state and national law enforcement wholesale costs per pound, assuming a yield of 1 pound per plant.
That dwarfs the value of legal crops grown here in 2006 -- the latest figures available -- when farmers, loggers and livestock producers produced goods valued at $16.2 million. Those figures appeared in the annual crop report submitted by Nevada County Agriculture Commissioner Jeffrey Pylman in August.
The 41,000 marijuana plants seized here this year far exceed the 4,863 found during 2006, which would have brought roughly $14.6 million on the low end and $24.3 million at the high. That compares more closely with the county's $16.2 million value for legal crops in 2006, but does not count legal pot crops and illegal plants not seized.
The local figures reflect statewide trends.
Last year, narcotics investigators seized 2.8 million marijuana plants, valued at $11.07 billion. In 2005, the total value of marijuana production was estimated at $7.6 billion, officials said.
That's more than milk, the state's biggest legal ag commodity. In 2005 state farmers and ranchers earned $31.7 billion on 400 commodities, according to the latest figures from California's Department of Food and Agriculture.
Each plant normally yields 1 to 3 pounds of mature buds, the part of the plant most desired on the market for its high content of the active ingredient that gets smokers high, said Lt. Bill Evans, in charge of the sheriff's investigation and narcotics division.
"I have personally taken 3 1/2 pounds of colas (buds) off of one plant," Evans said. But yield varies vastly depending on growing conditions and the variety of marijuana plant; the rule of thumb for 1 pound per plant for statistical purposes would be considered conservative, he said.
One pound of high-grade pot buds in the well-known Northern California growing area sells for anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000 per pound wholesale, according to Evans and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in Washington, D.C.
At the low end, that means the pot seized here so far this year would be worth between $123 million and $205 million.
Those figures do not count what has been cut and sold beyond law enforcement's knowledge.
Street value figures for drugs have often been criticized by readers of The Union and others, who contend they are inflated to make law enforcement look good. But Steve Robertson of the DEA in San Francisco said law enforcement takes the values seriously.
"Our intelligence goes out every quarter and talks to informants and policemen" to get current street prices, Robertson said. "We also get them from underground sales. People tell our agents what the price is of the drug they're buying."
Based on that, an ounce of high-grade pot is currently going from $360 to $400 an ounce on the street in Northern California, Robertson said. The quarterly reviews also produced the $3,000 to $5,000 per pound wholesale value, Robertson said.
Like many commodities in the United States, the price per unit increases as the amount sold drops, Evans said. That means the 1 ounce figures could double when pot is sold by the joint or in smaller quantities, he said.
The large increase of seized marijuana plants this year can be partially traced to several large farms planted by Mexican criminal organizations found in the South Fork Yuba River Canyon, Evans said. After one of several busts in early August, Evans said, "The entire canyon is littered with gardens."
The flood of pot plantations on federal lands also caused Sheriff Keith Royal to say Nevada County was getting a reputation as "the emerald triangle." The area's climate lends itself to good production, Evans added.
The increase is also the result of new District Attorney Cliff Newell's stricter guidelines of only six plants for medicinal pot gardens, which have produced seizures when patches go over that limit, Evans said.
BY THE NUMBERS
About 4,900 illegally-grown marijuana plants were seized in Nevada County in 2006, valued at $14.6 million to $24.3 million, based on assumptions of value at $3,000 to $5,000 per pound and a conservative yield of 1 pound per plant.
Nevada County's legal crops were worth $16.2 million in 2006.
There have been more than 41,000
illegal pot plants seized here so far this year, with a value of $123 million to $205 million, based on the aforementioned figures.
-- Source: Nevada County Agriculture Department, Nevada County Sheriff's Office, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration