A California Republican congressman released videos this week of himself bulldozing unlicensed cannabis grows in a remote part of the state, a move local Hmong farmers say is likely to stoke racial tensions that have escalated during a major wildfire that continues to burn in the area.
The office of Rep. Doug LaMalfa posted to YouTube a number of videos originally filmed in May that show him touring seized pot farms in Siskiyou County before operating a bulldozer to destroy greenhouses and cannabis plants, operations he has long condemned as destructive to the environment.
Outdoor grows are illegal in that county and often lack sewage systems and other environmental safety measures. But advocates for local farmers say the timing of the videos — weeks after law enforcement officers fatally shot a 35-year-old Hmong man during a mandatory wildfire evacuation — is problematic, as is the congressman’s language.
“I love the smell of diesel power in the afternoon. It smells like victory,” LaMalfa says in one of the videos, playing off a quote from the Vietnam War movie "Apocalypse Now."
LaMalfa has been a staunch opponent of cannabis reform in Congress and previously authored legislation to increase penalties on illegal cultivation and provide local law enforcement agencies more resources to eradicate grows. In a statement released along with the four videos, LaMalfa said that the rapid growth of “illegal cartel grow operations” are overwhelming Siskiyou County.
"Trash, illegally used pesticides, human waste and fuel cover the ground that has been scraped bare of organic matter with nothing but dust left,” the statement reads. “Nothing about the organized criminal grows in Siskiyou County is legal. These grow sites are destroying our environment. Local wildlife is now nonexistent in the area. This level of criminality cannot be tolerated.”
California state officials have in recent years increased funding to crack down on the illicit cannabis market, which is worth more than $8 billion annually, according to industry analysts. Local officials estimate that there are more than 4,000 grow sites in the Mount Shasta area of Siskiyou County. They are home to about 6,000 people, the vast majority of whom are Hmong.
In a statement given to The Sacramento Bee, an attorney for the Hmong growers said LaMalfa’s statement "sounds like a divisive message that’s likely to inflame the tensions instead of making them better."
Most Hmong Americans came to the United States as refugees in the late 1970s in the wake of the Vietnam War. Thousands of Laotian Hmongs fled to Thailand after the war before resettling in the United States after being persecuted by the Laotian government for their perceived support of the Americans.
There are roughly 330,000 Hmong Americans living in the United States, primarily in California and Minnesota, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Racial tensions are already high in Siskiyou County, where crews for weeks have been battling the 26,000-acre Lava Fire. Hmong farmers have accused firefighters of refusing to put out blazes that approached cannabis grows. Law enforcement officials countered that farmers blocked access roads and threw rocks at approaching firefighters.
Late last month, multiple law enforcement officers shot 35-year-old Soobleej Hawj, who died at the scene. Police said Hawj ignored orders to drive away from the fire evacuation zone and pointed a handgun at officers, but some eyewitnesses have disputed that story. The officers have been placed on administrative leave.
Members of the Hmong community have also filed a federal lawsuit against the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office and other law enforcement agencies claiming that they violated farmers’ due process and unlawful search and seizure rights.
They organized rallies last week in the county seat of Yreka demanding justice for Hawj and protesting a local ordinance that prevents water from being shipped into the Mount Shasta area. They say this prevents farmers from growing food crops and bathing.
Those rallies have drawn support from a Sacramento city council member and two members of the St. Paul, Minn., city council.