by David Downs
Americans consume an estimated 2,500 to 5,000 metric tons of cannabis each year — and almost none of it is grown under any regulations. Consequently, you got the modern equivalent of moonshiners up in California wilderness hoping to make $800 per pound off the stuff.
On Monday, the U.S. Attorney's office for the Eastern District of California announced six pot growers in four counties were sentenced to federal prison for large-scale marijuana cultivation operations throughout the Central Valley. The latest prison sentences stem from “Operation Mercury” - a 2012 federal crackdown on pot growing in inland Northern California. Operation Mercury has led to the seizure of nearly half a million marijuana plants and the prosecution of 84 defendants in federal court in Fresno.
These guys are no small-time medical cannabis growers, either.
According to U.S. Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner, Victor Alfonso Madrigal Cardenas, 26, of Delano, California got eight years prison for having a gun and growing 16,205 marijuana plants as well as possessing 1,100 pounds of processed marijuana in the Sentinel Peak area of the Sequoia National Forest in Tulare County. He pled guilty earlier this year. Madrigal was also ordered to make restitution to the U.S. Forest Service in the amount of $3,686.54 to cover the costs of cleaning up the cultivation site.
“According to court documents, the marijuana cultivation operation caused extensive damage to the land and natural resources. Native vegetation was cut to make room for the marijuana plants and trash and fertilizer containers were scattered throughout the site, including in a flowing stream. Madrigal is subject to deportation to Mexico after he serves his prison term,” Wagner's office states.
Chanh Vorasane, 47, of Laos, got two years prison for being involved in the cultivation and processing of approximately 1,163 marijuana plants and more than 1,723 pounds of processed marijuana grown on a vegetable farm in Reedley.
Alfonso Cornejo, 30, of Michoacan, Mexico, got three years and ten months in prison after pleading guilty to conspiring to cultivate 8,876 marijuana plants near the Greenhorn Creek Trail in the Sequoia National Forest in Kern County.
“According to court documents, native oak trees and other vegetation were cut down or otherwise killed to make room for the marijuana planted there. The soil was tilled, and fertilizers and pesticides, including a highly toxic and illegal rat poison from Mexico called Fosfuro de Zinc or zinc phosphide, were spread throughout the site. Cornejo is subject to deportation after he serves his sentence.”
Antonio Becerra Sanchez, 49, of Nayarit, Mexico, got one year's prison after pleading guilty to conspiring to grow 393 marijuana plants on a twenty-acre parcel. Becerra is subject to deportation to Mexico.
Christopher Norberto Gallegos, 20, of Temecula, Calif., got one year and six months prison following his guilty plea earlier this year for conspiring to cultivate 920 marijuana plants on private ranch land in Kern County. Law enforcement officers also seized 3 pounds of processed marijuana and an assault weapon from the grow site.
And Phanetavanh Southammavong,44, of Laos, was sentenced to two years in prison following his guilty plea earlier this year to conspiring to cultivate 907 marijuana plants near the San Joaquin River in Newman, California.