Federal law enforcement officers this week snatched more than 12,000 cannabis plants from two farming operations on Native American land in California, which were allegedly financed by a Canadian Aboriginal tobacco tycoon.
The two pot farms allegedly operated together, shuttling product between the sites, as well as cash. Confidential informants told the feds that the weed farms have ties to Jerry Montour, CEO of a large Canadian tobacco firm Grand River Enterprises, according to a federal warrant made public on July 8. The warrant says the informants saw Montour on one of the sites, located in the far northeast corner of California in Modoc county.
The heavily guarded location is about 100 yards from the Desert Rose Casino on the Alturas Indian Rancheria, which is federally designated Native American sovereign land.
Few other details about Montour or his company's connection were available at publication time. Montour, who resides in Ontario, Canada, did not return calls for comment made by VICE News.
However, Grand River and Montour have had brushes with the law. The company, which is the largest employer at the Six Nation's aboriginal reserve in Canada, currently faces at least one lawsuit for allegedly illegally distributing contraband cigarettes in New York. It's had similar dealings with other state governments in the past.
In 1988, Montour was convicted of a conspiracy to import marijuana from Mexico into Canada, and he and his father were sentenced to prison time. And in 1991, Montour was convicted of cultivation of a narcotic, according to the warrant.
One of the reasons the Drug Enforcement Administration and Bureau of Indian Affairs caught the scent in this instance was because the allegedly Montour-backed pot farm wasn't authorized by the Alturas Indian Rancheria council, a five person body which makes tribal policy. In fact, Wendy Del Rosa informed on her brother Phillip Del Rosa, who is alleged to have overseen operations at both pot growing facilities.
The Alturas Rancheria tribe is one the nation's smallest, and Phillip and Wendy Del Rosa have reportedly been squabbling over the business interests in the casino, other business projects, and who constitutes a member of the tribe.
The feds discovered the second pot site after a traffic stop and the subsequent search of the vehicle operated by one of the weed farms' workers. The stop yielded a cargo manifest with both locations listed, as well as 1436 plants and cash.
The second site was much larger than the facility at Alturas Rancheria. About 10 miles away, the farm sits on land owned by the Pit River Tribe, and has a capacity to grow 40,000 to 60,000 plants spread across dozens of greenhouses.
"[The grow site] far exceeds any prior known commercial marijuana grow operation anywhere within the 34-county Eastern District," Benjamin Wagner, the US Attorney for the Eastern District of California, said in a statement.
To wit, conservatively, that amount of bud is likely worth more than $60 million. According to the warrant, a local utility company employee estimated the operation would carry a projected annual power bill between $5 and $8 million. The utility company was in fact planning to build a substation across the road.
The enforcement action comes months after the Justice Department issued additional guidance on enforcing weed laws. Although the drug remains illegal to possess, grow, and sell under federal law, in December 2014, the feds green-lit the cultivation and sale of medicinal marijuana on tribal lands — so long as they follow the federal guidelines already issued to states such as Colorado and Washington, which officially legalized recreational pot in 2014.
Native American tribes, however, are not allowed to move cultivated weed off of their sovereign land.
Industrial scale weed farms, such as the two discovered in Modoc county, are representative of the proverbial boogeyman that some marijuana industry advocates are concerned about: the Walmart of weed. And some involved in the nascent marijuana industry have long been suspicious of Big Tobacco moving toward pot cultivation — although not everyone is convinced trouble is brewing.
"The thought of them going after another hyper regulated market is far fetched to me," Nicholas Smilgys of a farm-to-table pot company called Flow Kana told VICE News.
Despite persistent rumors that tobacco firms such as the Altria Group and Reynolds are buying up land in California's famous growing region known as the Emerald Triangle — comprised of Humboldt, Mendocino, and Trinity counties — Montour's alleged connection is one of the first seemingly concrete examples of such an alleged investment taking place, even if it was illegal.
"We were dumbstruck to hear that tobacco money was involved in the Modoc tribal venture," Dale Gieringer, Director of the California NORML, told VICE News. "This is the first time any such case has come to our attention. In the past, tobacco companies have stayed away from marijuana, rightly concerned about the implications under federal law."
The tribes in Modoc aren't the only ones experimenting with cannabis farming. The Pinoleville Pomo Nation in the Emerald Triangle has launched a 2.5 acre cannabis project in Mendocino county, which too has been problematic. Law enforcement has not taken action yet, though tensions have simmered.
And outside of California, the Santee Sioux Tribe of South Dakota has decided to legalize and start selling marijuana in 2016, according to the Washington Post. Matt Bear of the Meskwaki tribe of Iowa has said also his tribe is considering legalization, because the state of Iowa does not allow medical marijuana.
The Santee Sioux and Meskwaki aren't the only tribes considering cannabis, the Pomo Nation's two pot farming partners — United Cannabis and casino investor Foxbarry — are in talks with Native Americans across the country.
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