Drug Busts Going Up in Yosemite

The Investigative Unit’s Elyce Kirchner uncovers citations and arrests for drug-related issues in Yosemite climbing over the past five years and compares those numbers to other popular national parks.

In the peace of Yosemite’s forests and majestic waterfalls, modern reality prevails: drug use.

The Investigative Unit has discovered Yosemite has the highest number of drug arrests and citations per 100,000 visitors when compared to other popular national parks. And for a park that’s about the size of Rhode Island, the majority of the crime takes place in a seven square mile area.

“We were comparing it to Disneyland,” camper Malcolm Morgan of Larkspur said. “We see a lot more happy faces here in Yosemite than we did in Disneyland.”

Morgan and his 11-year-old daughter, Mia, are two of the three million park-goers who make the trek into the valley every year. However, Morgan experienced the unexpected during his trip: drugs.

“We were just setting up camp and we could definitely detect an odor of pot,” he said. “I would think that if you are doing drugs in a place like this, you are putting yourself at risk.”

The Investigative Unit discovered that national park rangers have detected a rising use of narcotics in the typically family-friendly park over the past five years. Yosemite’s Annual Law Enforcement Reports dating back to 2007 show there has been an 18 percent increase in the number of drug arrests and citations at Yosemite during that time period.

In the last year, park rangers arrested or cited 855 visitors for drug possession.

The Investigative Unit compared the number of drug arrests and citations over the past three years to other national parks. Yosemite came out on top with 2,393 arrests, compared to Yellowstone with 500 and the Grand Canyon at 365. Yosemite also had the most when broken down by number of tourists: 20 arrests per 100,000 visitors.  

PARKSDrug Possession Arrests 2010-2012Total Visitors 2010-2012Drug Arrests per 100K Visitors
Grand Canyon36513,107,9163
Joshua Tree894,227,3302
Death Valley312,916,2101

NBC Bay Area met up with Deputy Chief Ranger Julie Byerly to discuss the numbers. She spends most of her time patrolling camp sites in the valley.

“I don't think that we've got drug dealers on the corners or anything like that,” Byerly said.

When asked if Yosemite has a drug problem, she said: “No, I think there is a transient drug issue here. You know, largely folks that are coming and going.”

Byerly also argues the park is similar to a small town, and like any community, Yosemite has crime.

And just like any town or city, Yosemite has a courthouse. Sitting in his office inside the courthouse located in the Yosemite Valley, United States Magistrate Judge Michael J. Seng told NBC Bay Area: “It seems to me that they come up with a little bit of a spring break mentality.”

Those arrested at the national park are subject to federal laws, which requires them to apear in front of Seng.

He says a drug culture amongst certain groups may account for part of the problem, and he’s seen it all.

“It’s been primarily marijuana, mushrooms, hallucinogenic mushrooms, and then the party drug- ecstasy,” he said. “It just seems that many of the people that are here and spend an awful lot of time have similar sensibilities, and that was always traditionally a drug culture.”

Different groups have different explanations for Yosemite’s relatively higher numbers of arrests and citations.

One local who admitted he smokes marijuana occasionally, said the increased amount of arrests is due to vigilant rangers, on the lookout for drug users.

“It’s really not fair because they target you,” the local said. “They know that people around here smoke pot.”

Defense attorney Mike Mitchell has represented dozens of visitors busted for drugs in Yosemite. He thinks the higher numbers in Yosemite result from the higher concentration of visitors who camp in the Valley.

“Yosemite sees about three million visitors a year and most of them come to about seven square miles of park,” Mitchell said. He believes that allows rangers to focus their efforts in a tight geographical region.

Meanwhile, campers like Malcolm Morgan just keep their fingers crossed that the behavior doesn't set a bad example for the kids, “Hopefully the kids don't see what’s going on and start to follow suit.”

Arrest totals for the past three years can be seen in the chart below:

OFFENSE 2012-2010YosemiteGrand CanyonYellowstoneJoshua TreeDeath ValleyGrand Total
Drugs - Possession2,39336550089313,378
Disorderly Conduct3828052544121,484
Liquor Laws2112815335261,083
Larceny-Theft (except motor vehicle)61221720430101,073
Suspicious Persons22915413321519
Driving While Intoxicated 199108160133483
Other assaults (no weapons used)76326742181
Weapons (carrying, possessing, etc.)803232333180
Offenses Against Family/Kids61222601110
Stolen Property (buying, receiving, possessing)412365057
Drugs- Sell/Manufacture227240255
Sex Offenses253413348
Motor Vehicle Theft9420116

 Do you have a tip for the Investigative Unit? email us: TheUnit@nbcbayarea.com

Contact Us