Wednesday, August 01, 2012

First time for everything - reporter gets close look at marijuana raid

First time for everything - Reporter gets close look at marijuana raid

Reporter gets close look at marijuana raid
Though I have been a news reporter for more than 10 years, there is one thing I had never personally reported on — a marijuana eradication.
When I learned from my editor that I would finally have the opportunity to do just that, my mind raced. I knew sleep would be difficult the night before. I was too excited.
Not because of the plant itself, but because it meant spending the day in the mountains at Sequoia National Forest.
First, I must say, I am not your typical person. I was raised quite sheltered and was always considered different or odd by people I talked to in reference to what they considered ‘normal’ adolescent experiences. People still find it hard to believe that to this day I have never drank a beer or smoked a cigarette in my entire life.
With that said, I can honestly say that Tuesday, July 31, 2012 was a unique day for me — it was the first time I saw, touched and smelled a mature marijuana plant with blooming buds.
And, as odd as this sounds, I can say that getting there was fun. Getting back was not.
It also made me realize just how much work the Tulare County Sheriff’s Tactical Enforcement Personnel (STEP) unit — the primary team for pursuing illegal marijuana traffickers in Tulare County — are up against. Marijuana gardens in the forest are not usually simple to get to. On Tuesday, I just got lucky. Or did I?
After meeting Sgt. Chris Douglass, Tulare County Sheriff’s Department spokesperson, in Springville, photographer Reneh Agha and I became a part of the caravan led up the road, past the Springville White Barn and up Bear Creek Drive to the garden.
Parking at a 2,900 elevation, the group — seven to 10 Sheriff personnel and five civilians, a television-news reporter, Chief of Staff from Congressman Devin Nunes’ office and the field representative for Senator Jean Fuller, Reneh and myself — prepared for the steep descent to the bottom of the mountain. We were advised to watch for snakes, be aware of ticks, avoid touching poison oak and to stay close, as “bad guys” were seen in the area earlier in the day.
Within minutes, my shoes were filled with pebbles and dirt. The trail, which started simple, was covered in brush and blocked by numerous branches, many of them dried, but it was not too bad. There were several areas with slippery terrain — dirt, that when stepped on, rolled away and down the hill, causing several of us to occasionally lose our footing on the way down. Fortunately, TCSO was there with several helping hands along the way to steady us through the rough patches.
As we approached the garden area — a good 300 feet or more drop in elevation — irrigation lines leading from the waterfall via streams were pointed out. But what surprised me the most was the scent that suddenly appeared, and lingered strongly, prior to reaching what was described as the first processing center — a place where four-to five-feet tall plants had already been removed. We could smell it before we could see anything. I was also very surprised by how sticky the plant was. 
As we continued on our trek, we came across a littered makeshift camp. My first thought was ‘How can they live like this?’ and I mentally started rearranging the place to a kitchen, living, and sleeping quarters. Just as fast, my mind returned to the camp and I saw that they had a form of system already in place — including a “laundry room” where clothes hung on barb-wire and a “recreation area” where numerous porn magazines still lay. A long PVC pipe device was near the “kitchen” and I listened to a STEP officer describe how “honey butter” or “honey oil” was made by extracting THC from marijuana leaves. It was all a bit foreign, but interesting, to me.
Moving along, we came to an area of tall plants — seven to eight feet in height. I honestly had no idea these plants grew so tall or could thrive so well.
As our tour came to an end, and following a long break, we prepared for the return to our vehicles. The return, it turned out, was what seemed to be 20 times harder than the descent into the garden. Everything was suddenly a steep uphill climb, and with my shoes slip-sliding on soft, loose dirt, I found myself needing a few rest sessions along the way. My face and hair damp from sweat and with water that I used to frequently drench myself. There were areas that required one to almost crawl up the dirt, holding on to anything that wouldn’t move. It was not easy but I made it — thanks to perseverance and a few helping hands that helped me pull myself up from rocks and sandy inclines along the way.
All in all, I would say it is an experience I will not forget and one that I can add to my list of unique-story coverage.
Contact Esther Avila at 784-5000, Ext. 1045. Follow her on Twitter @Avila_recorder.

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