During a recent illegal marijuana grow operation on May 21, 2021, authorities discovered 21,000 marijuana plants growing in greenhouses spread over 40 acres. The aroma was so pungent that authorities could smell the farm from a helicopter 1100 feet in the air. Authorities spent two days hauling over 25 tons of illegal cannabis plants to an undisclosed location where the plants would be buried. The seizure has an estimated street value of over $31 million. Local authorities have called this the ‘most elaborate’ illegal marijuana grow they have ever seen.
This ‘most elaborate’ illegal marijuana grow was not located in San Bernardino County. It was located in Fresno County in Mendota, a small farming town situated between the I-5 and CA-99 about 40 miles west of Fresno. The actual grow site was located on what looks like an abandoned farm surrounded by thousands of acres of cropland. Folks seemed as amazed as the Sheriff did about the discovery.
The Fresno County grow is an all too familiar scene for residents of Phelan, Pinon Hills, El Mirage, and many other unincorporated areas of San Bernardino County. It seems these criminals have no fear of the consequences of committing an illegal act as many of these grows can be seen from across the valley with the naked eye with a few so large that they surely could be seen from the International Space Station. It’s as if they are taunting authorities saying, “we’re growing illegally, and what are you going to do about it.”
Reports of warrants being served, plants confiscated, electrical bypasses, and weapons found come across the “news wire” almost weekly. A drive down El Mirage Road or Highway 18 reveals a thriving community of greenhouses, the hustle and bustle of farm and construction supplies being transported to and fro, the water wells being drilled, the water trucks and totes filled with fuel traveling diligently from spigot to plant.
The situation is getting out of hand, locals are getting frustrated, water agencies are hemorrhaging stolen water at an alarming pace, law enforcement is taxed and woefully understaffed, and legislators are politicking. Everyone seems to be aware that the problem exists, but what to do is the question. Which, as it turns out, is not as easy as one might think.
In 1996 California voters passed Proposition 215, called the ‘Compassionate Use Act,’ and in 2016 passed Proposition 64, called the ‘Adult Use of Marijuana Act’ or ‘AUMA’ for short. These laws made it legal to grow marijuana for both health and personal use. They set up a set of laws and regulations governing the cultivation, production, and use of cannabis across the state. They also created several agencies tasked with monitoring, permitting, and regulating the industry. In 2017 the laws regulating cannabis, as a result of Prop 215 and the AUMA, were revised and pulled into comprehensive new legislation known as the ‘Medicinal and Adult-Use Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act’ or ‘MAUCRSA’ for short.
In section 2 of the AUMA, there are regulations that safeguard local control, allowing cities and counties to regulate cannabis-related activities, subject cannabis businesses to zoning requirements, and ban cannabis businesses.
While growing marijuana is legal in the State of California–commercial cannabis grows must be permitted; San Bernardino County has elected to prohibit all commercial cannabis activity which includes cultivation, production, storage, processing, manufacturing, dispensing, delivery, distribution, testing, transportation, provision, and sale in unincorporated areas. The only exceptions are the 24 incorporated cities and towns within the county. They may permit or prohibit commercial cannabis. So far, Adelanto is the only city to allow cannabis, and that is confined to three industrial zones located within the city limits. Cultivation of cannabis for personal use within the county is only allowed inside a private residence. Outdoor cultivation, including in a greenhouse, is prohibited. This means all of the greenhouses, from the single greenhouse to the acres-large compounds full of greenhouses, if growing cannabis, is growing it illegally.
For medical use, each patient with a medical marijuana identification card may possess up to 12 plants with a limit of 24 plants per private residence. And for recreational use, a person over the age of 21 can cultivate up to six plants inside their primary residence with no more than six plants per residence.
The sudden increase in illegal marijuana grows within the county has much to do with the passage of the AUMA. It changed the offense of violating regulations from a felony to a misdemeanor, which reduced the penalty from a $10,000 fine and up to three years in prison to a fine of between $500 to $1000 or imprisonment in County jail for up to six months or both plus court costs. Civil penalties could also be imposed not to exceed $1000 per violation for each day that the violation exists. And that is only if the San Bernardino County District Attorney decides to prosecute the offense.
There are several places that residents can report suspected illegal marijuana activity. It is important to never engage with any suspected wrongdoer, call the authorities or report your tip online or by phone. Supervisor Cook of the 1st District and his staff are encouraging anyone with information to contact the CalCannabis tip line at 1-833-WEED-TIP (1-833-933-3847). This is a statewide reporting system that all agencies and law enforcement have access to. This database may be the best way to ensure that all agencies from local to state are aware of the scope of the situation.
Third District Supervisor Rowe recommends contacting the Sheriff’s station and contacting the County Clerk of the Board at COB@sbcounty.gov. She says by contacting the clerk; complaints will get forwarded to all Supervisors. Rowe also suggested that residents speak to the supervisors during their board meetings. This can be done in person if COVID guidelines allow it or virtually at one of the county’s several government centers. Visit sbcounty.gov/main/pages/BOS for more information. (Hi-Desert Star, April 21, 2021) Residents can also report suspected violations to Code Enforcement via their website at sbcountylus.force.com/lus/servicetypes.
At the County level, the Board of Supervisors has proposed $10.4 million in funding to “tackle illegal marijuana farms, short-term rental abuses, snow-play nuisances, and other key community concerns,” to be included in the 2021-22 County Budget. It is unclear as to how this funding will be distributed between the issues above. The Board is expected to adopt the budget during one of their board meetings in June.
First District Supervisor Col. Paul Cook (ret.) whose district covers the west desert region of the county, has been relatively quiet on the subject. In a recent update from 1st District staff regarding the illegal marijuana grow issue, staff stated they “have not forgotten about the Tri-Community. We’ve been trying to work on it [illegal marijuana cultivation] from various different levels.” According to staff, the 1st District has been working behind the scenes talking to El Mirage, Mojave Water Agency, various Community Service Districts, the County’s Chief Administrative Officer, the 3rd District, Assembly Member “Smitty” Smith, and Congressman Obernolte.
Staff also noted that the SBC Marijuana Enforcement Team is understaffed, “which has been part of the reason this has been an issue.” Grows are popping up across the desert faster than the MET team can take them down. County Sheriff McMahon has been out to various CSD’s and communities to talk about the illegal marijuana issue though he has not visited the Tri-Community yet. However, there have been talks amongst local community leaders to coordinate with 1st District staff to hold a “town hall” to talk about the illegal marijuana issue.
At the state level, Assembly Member Blanca Rubio introduced AB 1138, coauthored by Assembly Member Thruston “Smitty” Smith, which would amend the MAUCRSA Act by imposing a civil penalty on any person engaging in illegal cannabis activity of up to 3 times the amount of the license fee for each violation and each day of violation. It would also impose a civil penalty on persons aiding and abetting unlicensed commercial cannabis activity of up to $30,000 for each violation and each day of violation. The Bill has passed through the Judiciary Committee and is set for a hearing in the Assembly Appropriations Committee.
Locally, at the federal level, members of the California Congressional Delegation have sent a letter to the Attorney General, Merrick B Garland requesting that he “utilize whatever authority is available” to address the growing crisis, “including prosecuting these criminals to the fullest extent allowable under the law to cut off escalating fear and violence in our districts.”
The letter also states, “The situation with illegal marijuana grows has become dangerous for the residents in the surrounding neighborhoods. We have heard from our constituents of heinous incidents of intimidation, coercion, and violence being used by illegal growers to ensure that their operations continue unimpeded. There have also been multiple homicides at these grow sites as opposing criminal syndicates engage in turf wars.” The letter was signed by Congressman Mike Garcia, Kevin McCarthy, Jay Obernolte, Ken Calvert, Devin Nunes, Tom McClintock, Doug LaMalfa, Darrell Issa, Young Kim, David G. Valadao, and Michelle Steel.
The long-term solutions are in motion, but the question is what can be done in the short term to stop these illegal intruders and make the unincorporated San Bernardino County residents feel safe enough to go outside again. What can be done before it’s too late?