California: Federal Agents Raid Tribal Marijuana Farm, Seize 12,000 Plants
By Steve Elliott
Dreams of a new era of federal tolerance of cannabis cultivation on Native American tribal lands took a big hit Wednesday as law enforcement officers from at least four agencies raided land occupied by two tribes in California, seizing at least 12,000 plants and more than 100 pounds of processed marijuana.
"Other than contraband marijuana and items of evidentiary value, no tribal property was seized and no federal charges are pending," claimed U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner of the Eastern District of California, which includes Modoc County, where the raids occurred, reports Denny Walsh at The Sacramento Bee.
Warrants signed on Tuesday by U.S. Magistrate Judge Carolyn K. Delaney gave federal agents the authority to search "two large-scale marijuana cultivation facilities located on federally recognized tribal lands at the Alturas Indian Rancheria and the XL Ranch in Modoc County." The county is in the northeast corner of California, with Oregon directly to the north and Nevada directly to the east.
An application signed by an agent for the Bureau of Indian Affairs claims that the chairman and vice-chairman of the Alturas Rancheria, a tribe with just five members and 20 acres of land, told the Modoc County Sheriff back in March that they planned to start growing marijuana near a casino the tribe operates, reports the Associated Press. The federal Department of Justice had announced in December that Native American tribes may grow and sell cannabis if they follow the same public safety and non-diversion policies required of states that have legalized marijuana for medical or recreational use.
Since the announcement, some of the 566 recognized Indian tribes in the U.S. have been considering the potential economic benefits of getting into the marijuana business.
An affidavit filed in support of the warrants quotes two informants as telling sheriff's deputies the two cultivation sites are operated jointly with the owners of a large tobacco company in Canada. A member of the Alturas Tribe has told county supervisors that the cannabis venture is financed by Jerry Montour, top officer and controlling shareholder of the Canadian business, Grand River Enterprises, a billion-dollar manufacturer of tobacco products, according to the affidavit.
The two informants claimed they saw Montour earlier this year on the Alturas Indian Rancheria in an area between a heavily guarded building housing the marijuana cultivation facility and the tribe's Desert Rose Casino.
U.S. Attorney Wagner claimed he varied from his usual policy of declining comment upon ongoing investigations that haven't yet resulted in criminal charges because the "grows in question have received substantial attention in Modoc County, as has the U.S. Department of Justice's guidance relating to marijuana cultivation on tribal lands."
“The volume of marijuana that the XL facility alone was capable of producing, estimated at approximately 40,000-60,000 plants, far exceeds any prior known commercial marijuana grow operation anywhere within the 34-county Eastern District,” Wagner said. “According to tribal representatives, all of the marijuana cultivated at both facilities was intended to be distributed off tribal lands at various unidentified locations.
“As indicated in the search warrant affdavits, the investigation to date indicates both operations may have been financed by a third-party foreign national,” Wagner said.
The amount of marijuana being cultivated inside the Alturas Rancheria Event Center and in at least 40 greenhouses on Pit River tribal land nearby suggested that neither federal conditions nor California's medical marijuana laws were being met, federal prosecutors and the affidavit claims. A law enforcement news release claimed the two grow operations "appear to have been operating in conjunction with each other" and were "well in excess of the locally enacted marijuana cultivation limits applicable to county land."
The growing facility on the XL Ranch on Pit River tribal land consisted of 40 newly constructed greenhouse structures, each capable of accommodating about 1,000 marijuana plants, reports Action News Now. An additional globe-roofed structure reportedly boosted the square footage by another 50 percent.
Wagner claimed his office contacted representatives of both tribes "on multiple occasions" before Wednesday's raids and "reminded them" that cultivation of marijuana is illegal under federal law. Wagner claimed his office expressed concern to them that the large-scale commercial grows were operated "in a manner that violates federal law, is not consistent with California's Compassionate Use Act, and undermines locally enacted marijuana regulations."
"The investigation of the cultivation facilities searched today indicates that both are commercial marijuana cultivation projects operated with the intent to transport large quantities of marijuana off tribal lands for distribution at various locations yet to be identified by the tribes," Wagner's office said in a statement. "These facts raise multiple federal enforcement concerns, including the diversion of marijuana to places where it is not authorized."
Federal authorities were asked to investigate the marijuana growing project by the sister of the Alturas Rancheria chairman, according to the affidavit. Wendy Del Rosa and her brother, Phillip Del Rosa, have been fighting over control of the tribe since 2012, The Sacramento Bee's Stephen Magagnini reported earlier this year.
Grand River Enterprises is the largest private employer on Ontario's Six Nations' the most populous reservation in Canada and the only location of all six Iroquois nations. Montour, a 45-year-old member of the Mohawk tribe, lives in Hamilton, a port city on the western shore of Lake Ontario.
Photo of XL Ranch greenhouses: Action News Now