For decades, marijuana growers in Northern California have been tipped off to police activity by a community radio station and local citizens wary of the drug war. Now, police - citing a boom in marijuana production and a possible influx of armed illegal drug traffickers - say the practice needs to stop.
As summer looms, pot growers in the Northern California counties of Humboldt and Mendocino are preparing the ground for another growing season. Meanwhile, local, state and federal agents are poised to deploy helicopters and trucks to raid illegal operations.
Tracking Law Enforcement
In a radio broadcast like many others in this area's pot war, a female announcer recently issued this alert:
"According to a citizen's observation, at 8:45 a.m., three helicopters were seen heading from Laytonville to Bell Spring Road."
Reports like this one alert the station's listeners -- which include both legal and illegal pot growers -- to the movements of police and drug agents, on the ground and in the air. Ending the segment, the host said, "To report sightings such as these, you can call the civil liberties monitoring project" at a local phone number.
These reports are a staple on KMUD, a community radio station based in southern Humboldt County. The broadcasts began after the Reagan administration ramped up drug raids in the region, known as California's pot capital.
KMUD program director Marianne Knorzer says the reports are part of the station's broader commitment to progressive politics, government accountability and public safety.
"We're not broadcasting their whole operations," Knorzer says. "We're just giving the public an awareness that there are 10 trucks heading down a very narrow road with one-lane portions of it, with tight turns. Again, our reports are quite benign."
'Who Would Have Blood On Their Hands?'
Law enforcement officials have put up with the broadcasts for years -- but times are changing. As more pot is grown legally under California's medical marijuana laws, there's also been an influx of new marijuana growers to Northern California. And some run huge illegal growing operations on federal land.
Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman worries that the radio reports could tip them off -- and he wants the broadcasts to end.
"I hope they're not going to say, 'This is my land, don't come here,' " Allman says. "But what if that did happen, you know? And what if somebody did get hurt? Either that citizen or a law enforcement officer. Well, who would have blood on their hands?"
Recently in downtown Garberville, Allman met with representatives from both KMUD and the local group that gathers the reports on police operations.
As a man with a matted beard and wizened face played a violin outside the meeting hall, Allman tried to strike a conciliatory note. Addressing the group, he acknowledged past abuses by police and expressed a wariness at federal drug operations.
"I don't like Black Hawks in my county. I really don't," Allman said, referring to the helicopters used by federal agents.
"But if we lost a local, state or federal law enforcement officer, when it was determined that a local radio station had broadcast they were coming up the driveway, I believe we're setting ourselves up for something bad."
Allman's appeal to rethink the broadcasts was met with polite skepticism from the audience, which included activist Jared Rossman.
"I congratulate law enforcement for responding, because there were a lot of years of intense fear," Rossman said at the meeting. He then asked, "Have any law enforcement -- local, state or federal -- been hurt in these two counties over the past 25 years?"
In response, Allman said, "Last year was the first year in a decade that we actually took rounds during the execution of a search warrant. It was a total Mexican grow, there's no question about it. We're finding notes, we're getting death threats in ways that we never got before. We're seeing a resistance now that we haven't seen, ever."
Sheriff Vs. Station: A Standoff
The KMUD office occupies a rambling, one-story house just behind a gas station in the tiny hamlet of Redway. In some ways, the station reflects how the debate over marijuana has shifted, with more people accepting the idea of legal, medical pot -- including Sheriff Allman, who's a frequent guest on KMUD.
"I hope I don't come across as a 'Cheech and Chong' sheriff," he says. "But I do say the same things over and over -- that the days of cops going in and slash-and-burning are over. And they will never come back."
The police officers' respect for legal pot growers is a big reason KMUD's broadcasts on police operations are now -- at least according to Allman -- an anachronism. Perhaps they were justified years ago, he says, but not today.
Still, his concern about the broadcasts doesn't mean the sheriff is threatening legal action.
"I'm not talking about going to the FCC and saying take away their license," Allman says. "My intent is to figure out a solution where everybody is satisfied. They don't have to be happy, but they're satisfied with the solution."
But KMUD's Marianne Knorzer says that suspicions about the drug war still run high -- and that the station is unlikely to drop the reports.
"I can't ever imagine that happening," she says.
Both sides have agreed to continue the dialogue and assess the situation after major drug eradication operations wrap up this fall.
This story was produced as part of a collaboration between member station KQED and the Center for Investigative Reporting's California Watch. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.