By Ken Bastida

HAYWARD (CBS 5) — Marijuana is our state’s cash crop, in a big way. So much of it is now growing in California, a new report calls the Golden State the leading exporter of pot worldwide. And CBS 5 has learned the pipeline starts here in the Bay Area.

August 5th, 2010, 8:27 a.m. A 1976 Piper Aerostar took off from Hayward’s Executive Airport.

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Records show the twin-engine aircraft made landings in Clovis, New Mexico, Lubbock, Texas and Charlotte, North Carolina before its final destination at the Shelby airport in North Carolina just after midnight.

That’s where local law enforcement personnel were waiting. The sheriff’s department in Shelby said the plane was filled with 173 pounds of marijuana. Among those arrested: three men from Northern California. One of them is a United Airlines pilot, 45-year-old James Hathaway of Berkeley.

Who would guess that Hayward California has anything in common with Shelby, North Carolina.

But CBS 5 found that the runway at Hayward is one of the jumping off points of a well traveled drug route. “There is a lot of ties between what is going on in North Carolina today and what is going on in California. That seems to be a pipeline from here to North Carolina,” said former DEA Special Agent in Charge Bill Ruzzamenti.

Ruzzamenti heads up a state agency that monitors drug trafficking and said the seizure in North Carolina highlights a trend: marijuana production in California is way up.

“The numbers were just off the chart. I have been in drug law enforcement for 40 years and quite frankly I was astounded,” Ruzzamenti said.

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Using formulas set up by the United Nations and other government organizations, a new state report estimates California produced 69,000 metric tons of marijuana last year. That’s more than double the amount produced in all of Mexico. It’s so much pot that the report concludes California is the biggest exporter in the world.

“It would be impossible if pretty much everyone in the state was toked up every day, to smoke up all the marijuana that is being produced in California. It’s just impossible,” Ruzzamenti said.

The results concern him. “The wars they are fighting in Mexico today that have killed tens of thousands of people, those wars started over marijuana. We’ve seen that violence, its peaking, its going up,” Ruzzamenti said.

But critics of the report say not so fast. Chris Conrad testifies as an expert witness in marijuana trials. He said the formulas the government uses to come up with its pot production estimates are way off.

“When you follow the claimed quantities compared to what you actually get when you weigh and exam it like I do in court, it’s about 1/7th of what they start off claiming,” Conrad said.

Conrad believes there’s an ulterior motive. “The timing is extremely suspect because it coordinates exactly with the cannabis legalization initiative in California,” he said.

Ruzzamenti doesn’t see it that way. “One of the reasons behind that report was to try to get the attention of the folks in Washington that think the production of marijuana in California is a local regional problem. It is not a local regional problem, it’s a national problem. And if that’s a political move, that’s the way it is.”

The three suspects in the North Carolina bust are still behind bars on $5 million bail each. United Airlines told CBS 5 the pilot, James Hathaway, has been fired. Meanwhile the U.S. Attorney’s office will not confirm or deny reports that it is involved in the investigation.

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