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Opinion Black helicopters, the National Guard and ‘Ride of the Valkyries’: When Reagan’s war on pot came to California

One of an assortment of marijuana strains are displayed in San Bernardino, Calif., on Nov. 11, 2017. (Richard Vogel/AP)

Now that marijuana is finally legal for recreational use in the state of California, here at The Watch we’ve been looking at the drug’s history in the state — how it has been used, regulated and prohibited. In the first post, we looked at the origins of marijuana and cannabis prohibition, going back to the early 20th century. For this post, we’ll pick it back up in the late 1960s, as Richard Nixon begins his crusade against illicit substances and, in his 1968 campaign, ushers in the modern drug war. (I’ll note here that because my first book, “Rise of the Warrior Cop,” looks at the history of the contemporary drug war as the driver of police militarization, portions of this post are heavily borrowed from my book.)

The rise of the 1960s counterculture spurred a backlash on the right, and with it a desire for more aggressive, confrontational drug-war policing. One of the earliest casualties of the modern drug war I’ve been able to find is the death of Heyward Dyer in October 1969. Early in the morning, a team of police from the California State Bureau of Narcotics, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the nearby town of Vernon launched a pre-dawn, no-knock pot raid on an apartment in the city of Whittier.

They had raided the wrong apartment and instead frightened a 50-year-old woman and her 12-year-old daughter. Dyer was married to that woman’s older daughter. He and his wife lived upstairs, along with their 22-month-old son. Dyer woke up to screaming and commotion, and went downstairs to see what was going on. He was met with several police guns pointed at him. They told him to return to his apartment upstairs. He did. As the police then began to raid the second apartment, Dyer’s went down to check on her mother and sister, and handed the 22-month-old off to her husband. During the subsequent raid, one of the officers fired his rifle into the ceiling. The bullet went through the floor where Dyer was standing, struck him and killed him as he held his son. The raid turned up four pills the police believed to be narcotics and 150 marijuana seeds.

By the early 1970s, the counterculture had come to Northern California, particularly in what would become known as the “Emerald Triangle,” or Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties. The climate made the area particularly suited for growing marijuana, and the forested mountains made it ideal for growing it illegally. But the pot/hippie culture didn’t sit well with the conservative natives. Local law enforcement in particular dreaded the influx of “longhairs,” and some suspected them for a series of arsons in the area. They began a more aggressive crackdown on marijuana.

Nearly a year to the day after the death of Heyward Dyer, another casualty, this time at the opposite end of the state. In October 1970, a Humboldt County deputy shot and killed 22-year-old Patrick Berti. The recent college grad was headed to law school soon. Just before he left, he took a walk with a friend along the Eel River to see two pot plants that the friend had planted. But local deputies had already spotted the plants and had spent days staking them out, waiting for their owner to return. When the two young men stopped at the plants, the deputy jumped from the brush. Berti at the time was holding a twig in his hand. The deputy would later claim he mistook it for a gun. He fired his service weapon, striking and killing Berti.

Through the 1970s, the state would see a ratcheting-up of drug-war efforts during the Nixon years, followed by a modest move toward reform in the middle and latter half of the decade. In 1972, voters rejected a decriminalization proposition by a two-thirds majority. Legislative efforts to reduce penalties for possession of the drug were regularly met with the threat of veto by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan. But after Reagan left office in 1975, the legislature passed the Moscone Act, which made possession of an ounce or less of pot a misdemeanor instead of a felony. That’s about where things would remain until Reagan was elected president in 1980, after which he’d put the federal boot to California.

Still fighting the culture wars, Reagan and his advisers decided early on that marijuana was the biggest drug threat facing the country. And so a couple of years into his first term, federal and California officials came up with a battle plan to target cultivation in the northern part of the state. The phrase “battle plan” isn’t much of an exaggeration here. Here’s how I described the operation in my book:

The project was called the Campaign Against Marijuana Production, or CAMP. It was a joint operation dreamed up by Carlton Turner and California attorney general John Van de Kamp. The plan: bring in the National Guard to search for, find, and eradicate the marijuana fields popping up all over northern California. The program began in the summer of 1983, when the federal government sent U-2 spy planes to glide over the area in search of pot …
Then they sent the helicopters. In all, thirteen California counties were invaded by choppers, some of them blaring Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” as they dropped Guardsmen and law enforcement officers armed with automatic weapons, sandviks, and machetes into the fields of California …
In CAMP’s first year, the program conducted 524 raids, arrested 128 people, and seized about 65,000 marijuana plants. Operating costs ran at a little over $1.5 million. The next year, 24 more sheriffs signed up for the program, for a total of 37. CAMP conducted 398 raids, seized nearly 160,000 plants, and made 218 arrests at a cost to taxpayers of $2.3 million. The area’s larger growers had been put out of business (or, probably more accurately, had set up shop somewhere else), so by the start of the second campaign in 1984, CAMP officials were already targeting increasingly smaller growers. By the end of that 1984 campaign, the helicopters had to fly at lower and lower altitudes to spot smaller batches of plants. The noise, wind, and vibration from the choppers could knock out windows, kick up dust clouds, and scare livestock. The officials running the operation made no bones about the paramilitary tactics they were using. They considered the areas they were raiding to be war zones. In the interest of “officer safety,” they gave themselves permission to search any structures relatively close to a marijuana supply, without a warrant. Anyone coming anywhere near a raid operation was subject to detainment, usually at gunpoint.

Here’s how the journalist Dan Baum describes the operation in his essential drug war history “Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure“:

For a solid month, the clatter of helicopters was never absent from Humboldt County. CAMP roadblocks started hauling whole families out of cars and holding them at gunpoint while searching their vehicles without warrants. CAMP troops … went house to house kicking in doors and ransacking homes, again without warrants. Van de Kamp bolstered the raiding squads with LA policemen who, Van de Kamp knew, looked on two weeks of raiding hippie shacks in Humboldt County as “summer camp” … They’d kick apart [homes], wave guns at the terrified owners, and storm off in a could of dust and helicopter exhaust …
A CAMP team rousted a family from their home at gunpoint and shot their dog. A CAMP helicopter chased a nine-year-old girl down a dirt road and pointed guns at her … CAMP troops were searching without warrants not only the homes of suspected growers but also all the neighbors’ homes as well, ostensibly to “protect themselves.” Once inside, the troops would empty the refrigerator, pilfer what they wanted, and leave empty beer cans on sofas and counters … The citizens of the county, who had first welcomed CAMP as a way to get rid of dangerous lawbreakers, now viewed the operation as an occupying army.

The activist and author Arnold Trebach writes in his book “The Great Drug War” that federal officials deemed the entire town of Denny, Calif., to be a haven for drug dealers. They decided it needed to be captured. Denny residents Eric Masett and his wife Rebecca Sue told Trebach that when they pulled out of their driveway during a CAMP raid in 1983, six men dressed in camouflage pointed rifles at them. The couple fled back into the town, where CAMP officials had put up roadblocks to keep everyone in place while they conducted house-to-house searches — all without warrants. When CAMP left, a military-like convoy pulled out from the small village, guns still trained on the townspeople as they left. The couple told Trebach that as the convoy finally exited Denny, its members chanted, “War on drugs! War on drugs!”

Trebach documented other examples from the CAMP campaign in his book. One helicopter zeroed in on a man while he was relieving himself in an outhouse, blowing open the door. Agents later entered his house without a warrant and confiscated a rifle he owned legally. Another woman who described herself as a “conservative Republican” wrote in a journal she kept during the raids. “They came again this morning at about 8:00 o’clock,” she wrote. “A large cargo-type helicopter flew low over the cabin, shaking it on its very foundations. It shook all of us inside, too. I feel frightened … I see how helpless and tormented I am becoming with disgust and disillusionment with the government which has turned this beautiful country into a police state … I feel like I am in the middle of a war zone.” Another woman described a helicopter chasing her 12-year-old daughter and another girl. “It seems that we are in Vietnam or Nicaragua,” she told Trebach. “They saw guns, and thought they were going to be shot!”

A U.S. postal worker was at home preparing dinner with her 5-year-old son and a male friend when she heard a convoy of CAMP troops outside. As she walked out, shots rang out from the hillside. It was a rural area, so the sound of gunshots was common. But the CAMP warriors jumped from their trucks, weapons at the ready. One of them screamed at the woman to “get moving.” She replied that she was standing on her own property. One officer then put a rifle to her head, called her an “asshole” and told her that if he heard another shot, he’d “open up” on her home. He then put the muzzle of his gun inches away from her friend’s mouth. “If there’s going to be any shooting around here, I’m going to be the first son of a bitch to open up on all you motherf—–s.”

On April 12, 1985, U.S. District Judge Robert Aguilar finally issued an injunction against CAMP’s more aggressive tactics. The judge was alarmed to learn that the written directives by which the program operated gave law enforcement “virtually unbridled discretion to enter and search private property anywhere in the vicinity of an eradication raid, and to seize personal property and detain innocent citizens without probable cause or even reasonable suspicion of any criminal activity.” In other words, these weren’t some rogue cops acting out. This was all by design. Aguilar barred CAMP personnel from entering any property other than an open field without a warrant, and from entering any property adjacent to an open field without a warrant unless there were clear exigent circumstances. He also barred CAMP helicopters from flying within 500 feet of any person, house or vehicle, and assigned a retired judge to monitor the program to ensure CAMP officials complied with the order.

But even Aguilar couldn’t stop the abuse if state judges were willing to issue broad search warrants. Just a few months after his ruling, for example, a state judge signed a sweeping search warrant allowing CAMP officials to search a square quarter-mile of land — and the eight homes on it — for six suspected marijuana plants. The CAMP troops emptied the homes and assembled 12 people on the front lawn of one of the houses. The residents were held at gunpoint for several hours as the troops then searched the homes and the surrounding woods for the pot plants. A Vietnam vet told Trebach that the whole episode reminded him of the war. He also told Trebach he supported drug prohibition. He was just appalled at the way CAMP was enforcing it.

In a raid that managed to make national news, on the morning of March 8, 1985, at about 6 a.m., 60 law enforcement officers staged a raid on the large Mendocino County ranch owned by Bill Hay and his wife Karen. I wrote about the raid for the Huffington Post in 2013:

When Hay answered the loud knock at the door, he told a local paper, a federal agent “threw some papers in my face . . . while he held a gun up [my] nose.” Hay’s wife and son Robert were already awake, and also held at gunpoint. His son Richard was rousted from sleep with a gun pressed to his temple. Within minutes dozens of camouflage-clad narcotics cops from at least seven local, state, and federal police agencies fanned out over the Hays’ 11,000 acre farm. The raid included 14 vehicles, two ambulances, two aircraft, and a “lunch wagon” — in case the raiding cops worked up an appetite.
The raid was based on a tip from a confidential informant, who told police that the Hay ranch was the site of a massive underground drug warehouse, where they’d find stacks of marijuana bales and crates of cocaine, all packaged and ready for sale. After six hours of searching, they found nothing of the kind. The agent in charge then ordered a search of the Hay house. The drug cops ransacked the place, rifling through drawers and cabinets, apparently in the hope that Bill Hay was hiding an enormous drug storage facility in his sock drawer. They finally brought in drug dogs to sniff every inch of the Hay household. They found no contraband.
In all, the Hays were held at gunpoint for eight hours, during which they were not permitted to talk, eat or drink, change out of their bedclothes, or use the toilet. The Hays said several SWAT members mocked them as they ate lunch in front of them, and at one point, began simulating intercourse with a plastic deer lawn ornament on the family’s front lawn. The warrant allowed the team to look not just for drugs, but for “paraphernalia” used to harvest and package illegal drugs. At one point, a narcotics officer demanded to know why Hay was in possession of a large supply of baling wire. Hay pointed out that he kept a thousand head of cattle, 900 sheep, and had a baler in the barn. He then pointed to his huge of supply of hay, stacked in bales.
Finally, the police flew their informant to the Hay ranch, where he told them they had raided the wrong property. The Hays would later learn that the informant — described on the warrant as trustworthy and reliable — had previously told police the ranch was in Sonoma County.

Three years later, a jury would rule in favor of the Hay family and award them $8 million in damages. One juror told the Ukiah Daily Journal that the Hays’ account of the raid reminded him of the stories his father told him about life in Nazi-occupied Holland. California Deputy State Attorney General Paul Hammerness would later call the judge who ruled the search warrant invalid a “villain” and said the jury award was unjustified because “the Hays really weren’t damaged.” This, after all, was a war.

The mid-to-late 1980s brought the crack epidemic, which hit few places as hard as it hit Southern California. Here too, there’s a connection to pot. Both Baum and the journalist Ryan Grim have convincingly argued that the rise of crack can be blamed at least in part on the Reagan administration’s decision (and to a lesser extent the Carter administration) to target marijuana. The drug war has never succeeded in eradicating a popular drug, of course, and from the user end, marijuana and crack aren’t remotely similar. But the government can disrupt supply enough to raise the price of a particular drug. Raise it enough, and dealers will begin to switch to another product, even if that means finding new customers. It’s probably of no coincidence, then, that the price of marijuana began to rise just as crack emerged. And crack was a product that was cheap, easy to produce and a lot more addictive. In 2012, Grim interviewed the notorious 1980s kingpin Rick Ross, who made this very point:

“I wanted to sell pot. You couldn’t get pot at a decent price — I couldn’t, nor the quantity,” said Rick Ross, whose operation the Los Angeles Times dubbed “the Wal-Mart of crack dealing.” Ross built one of the largest cocaine empires in the country, expanding his operation to at least a dozen major cities.
“I could get a pound here, a pound here, once in awhile a few additional pounds, but I couldn’t get a constant, steady, good-price pot [connection]. You just couldn’t get it in the early ‘80s, when I was selling coke,” he said. Prosecutors estimated Ross made some $600 million over the course of his career. …
“What I learned about weed is that weed is a more profitable business than cocaine. More people use it. You get it cheaper per pound. And it carries less amount of time,” Ross said. “We just couldn’t buy it. It wasn’t price, because I had the money to buy whatever I wanted. So it wasn’t the price. It wasn’t available. It was a market I was shut out of.”

If Ross felt that way, it’s likely other dealers did too. And Grim found data to support the contention.

A confessed inability to find a steady supply of marijuana might sound strange coming from a drug kingpin, but it dovetails with a broader trend at the time. For the book “This Is Your Country On Drugs,” I looked at pricing data from the late ‘70s and ‘80s and found a remarkable divergence: As the price of pot skyrocketed, the price of cocaine plummeted. …
The Drug Enforcement Administration’s stated drug policy goal is to reduce supply so that price rises, which in theory will depress demand. But what happens in reality is that demand to get high simply goes elsewhere.
The movement in price was a direct result of policy put into place by President Jimmy Carter, then massively expanded by his successor, President Ronald Reagan.
Carter expanded a joint Mexican-American venture called Operation Condor, aimed at eradicating Mexican pot that had been supplied since 1975. American planes sprayed tons of herbicide on Mexican crops to kill pot plants. … “Tons of drugs were destroyed, production was reduced, prices rose, but drugs continued to flow into the American market, although in lesser quantity of Mexican origin,” writes sociologist Luís Astorga in the paper “Drug Trafficking in Mexico: A First General Assessment.”
The action had several consequences. One, a rise in the price of pot in the United States, was intended. Others weren’t. The growth of domestic marijuana farming might have eased pot shortages slightly during the ‘70s, but the industry was hardly the high-tech, high-efficiency bud-producing machine it is today. The encouragement of a shift from pot to cocaine importation among drug smugglers was a much more significant development in the short term. Coke, more valuable by weight and with a less detectable odor, was more profitable and much easier to move. …
Reagan redoubled efforts at curbing imports, further militarized drug policy and brought about mandatory-minimum sentences for minor drug offenses. In 1980, the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report lists fewer than 100,000 arrests for heroin and cocaine, which are tabulated together. By 1989, that figure had jumped to more than 700,000.

So as the state and federal governments pummeled Northern California with helicopters, National Guardsmen and gun-toting drug warriors, doing so likely helped create the epidemic that would soon devastate Southern California and a good deal of the rest of the country.

And all of this — the unnecessary deaths, the rampant militarism, the mass violations of basic rights and civil liberties — were to eradicate a drug that California, seven other states and the District of Columbia have now determined is safe for recreational use. And today, the Emerald Triangle — the area invaded by federal helicopters, spy planes and Fourth Amendment-free zones — is the largest cannabis-producing region in the United States.

Next time, we’ll look at the 1990s and the medical marijuana movement.