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Anchored by Jake Tapper, The Lead airs at 4 p.m. ET on CNN.

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July 8th, 2014
06:32 PM ET

Marijuana growers worsening California's drought

Mendocino County, California (CNN) – Wardens with guns drawn climbed to the top of a look out, before making the steep and dangerous descent into the world of the illegal drug trade.

They're hunting for marijuana, which has been legalized for medicinal use in the state since 1996.

But California's Department of Fish and Wildlife recently created a Marijuana Enforcement Team that is aggressively trying to eradicate it and jail the growers.

In the middle of California's most pristine public land, during one of the state's worst droughts, pipes are snaking through streams, and siphoning off large amounts of the public's water to grow weed.

"Nine times out of ten they're cartel or drug trafficking organizations out of Mexico," said Lt. John Nores, Jr., a member of the department's enforcement team.

The cartels have carved up the public's land for themselves, Nores tells CNN. Some are small plots, others are monster marijuana plants, where wardens find the growers' guns, pesticides, poisoned wildlife, and clearings that destabilize hill sides.

Environmental scientists say one plant alone can use 6 to 8 gallons of water per day.

And it's not just the cartels, but also some irresponsible medicinal marijuana growers making drought conditions even worse.

"These grow sites are doing more damage than some of the other fish and game crimes and poaching than we've seen in over 100 years of being in the department," said Nores.

Law enforcement has some unlikely supporters: a group of farmers whose families showed up in California's parched hills in the 1970's trying to live off the land, which eventually included growing marijuana.

"I'm proud of who and what I am, and what I do for my community. And it makes me sad that I am afraid to show my face, and that, you know, my medicine can get me in trouble," one farmer, who asked not to be identified, told CNN.

Growing marijuana is still a federal crime, but the farmer says he follows state law and grows medicinal marijuana among his vegetables. He wouldn't take CNN to his farm, but showed pictures where rain water is harvested using drip technology that doesn't waste a drop.

His solution to the environmental crises? Regulate it.

"Absolutely. Dude, give us, as producers, give us access to a legitimate marketplace. Give us regulations. Give us the ability to stand on our own two feet and work just like every other industry," he said. "Producers who are afraid of legalization should step their game up."

Everyone here agrees that, in the past decade, pot has become an economic juggernaut in an area of northern California known as the emerald triangle.

"Marijuana growers are the newest economy in our, in these counties around here," said state environmental scientist Stormer Feiler. "They're coming out of the logging industry collapsing basically."

"The marijuana industry is booming," he says.

After decades of environmental damage by the loggers before them, pictures show the scars left in the land by some marijuana growers.

If something isn't done, scientists say this state is in even greater danger of drying up.

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