dagga farms take root in us

Farmers are buying vineyards across the US state of Washington, hoping to establish roots in the area and capitalise on the booming wine industry.

Farmers are buying vineyards across the US state of Washington, hoping to establish roots in the area and capitalise on the booming wine industry.

Some of those vineyards, however, are producing tens of thousands of illegal dagga plants - a crop that could easily surpass grapes in value this year - while authorities believe some of these land owners are living in Mexico.

So far this year, law enforcement officials in the Yakima valley have converged on seven vineyards that had been converted to dagga operations.

At least five had been recently purchased - the buyers are still being tracked - and one had been leased to dagga growers by an unknowing owner.

Dagga growers aren't just hiding their crops in national forests and random cornfields any more, said Washington State Patrol Sergeant Richard Beghtol.

"They are able to amass a huge amount of money and are using that money to go out and buy land to do their marijuana cultivation.

"It's their big moneymaker," Beghtol said.

Washington's central valley, home to acres of fruit orchards and hop fields, has long been recognised as an important pipeline in the drug trade with easy access to Seattle, Portland and points east.

Crackdowns at the Canadian and Mexican borders have made it more difficult to ship dagga into the US, prompting dealers to establish US growing operations.

A bust of more than 60000 plants on the Yakama Indian Reservation in 2004, one of the biggest nationwide at the time, was traced to organised crime in Mexico and valued at more than R260million.

By 2006, authorities were seizing more than 144000 dagga plants across Washington state. - Sapa-AP

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