Courtesy Yurok Tribe
One of the illegal pot farms destroyed during Operation Yurok in 2015.

Drug Cartels and Illegal Pot Farms: Yurok Battle for Ancestral Lands


They’re armed, they build dams to divert entire creeks for irrigation, and they desecrate sacred lands and animals.

But this is not a history lesson about colonial practices. Illegal marijuana growers are the modern-day scourge on tribal lands.

While the legalization of marijuana for medicinal and other uses have prompted some tribes to explore potential business opportunities, many tribes have a completely different relationship with cannabis cultivation. In California the Yurok and Hoopa in particular are contending with pot farms that sap an already drought-taxed water supply, desecrate ancestral lands and poison sacred animals.

RELATED: Raid Targets Illegal Marijuana Farms Sapping Yurok’s Drought-Plagued Water Supply

In mid-July the Yurok Tribe, along with the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office, led a team of 40 officers serving search warrants at what officials said were “massive marijuana farms that are devastating the environment in Yurok ancestral territory,” in an eradication effort dubbed Operation Yurok. Since its inception four years ago, 70 marijuana farms of about 80,000 plants have been eradicated, the Yurok said in a statement.

“We are targeting the illegal grows that pose the biggest threat to our community,” said Yurok Tribe Chairman Thomas P. O’Rourke Sr. in a statement. “We will not be idle while these growers damage our natural resources, water supplies and way of life.”

Over the past five years, the clandestine cannabis industry has grown tremendously, the tribe said. These veritable plantations “unlawfully divert massive amounts of water from the streams that feed municipal and privately owned water delivery systems on the east side of Yurok Reservation,” the tribe said, compromising the salmon supply that its members depend on for survival. In addition, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, as well as fertilizer “even human waste matter,” are common contaminants, the tribe said.

Moreover, some of the growers are armed, which has caused fear among tribal members collecting traditional foods and basket materials. They “are also strongly suspected” of bringing heroin, methamphetamine and other drugs onto tribal lands, the Yurok said. A lack of funding prevents the most rugged, remote, eastern part of the Yurok Reservation from being policed properly, the tribe said.

Operation Yurok began in 2013, prompted by a drinking water outage directly related to the illegal diversions by the farms. The tribe appealed to Gov. Jerry Brown for help, and he sent personnel from the California National Guard’s Counterdrug Task Force. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, California Fish and Wildlife, the Del Norte Sheriff’s Office, Water Quality Control Board and other agencies are also part of the effort.

In 2015, tribal and state authorities destroyed 55,000 growing plants, nearly a ton of marketable marijuana and a hash lab, the Yurok said. They also took apart at least six makeshift dams that had been diverting water for irrigation instead of letting it flow into the Klamath River. The tribe is planning to sue growers this year for the first time, under the Cultural Resource Protection Ordinance, which is supposed to protect tribal cultural properties. 

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