Despite Lack Of Prosecutorial Backing, Sheriff Yet Intent On Rooting Up Marijuana Wherever It Grows

The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department’s effort to eradicate large-scale marijuana farms continued unabated last week, with deputies and detectives carrying out at least eight raids on unlicensed cultivation operations in the Eastern Mojave desert region.
That effort, involving more than a dozen sworn law enforcement officers, resulted in the uprooting of over 4,400 marijuana plants, which in their uncured state totaled over eight tons of marijuana.
Since 1999, the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department has been participating in and receiving federal money for the Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program. Even in the aftermath of the voters’ 2016 passage of the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, Sheriff John McMahon, with the consent of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors, applied for and continued to receive those grants, which he then used to offset some, though not all, of his department’s costs in going after marijuana cultivators. At present, the department is using $151,000 obtained through a Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program grant to offset the sheriff’s department’s costs in the anti-marijuana crusade.
Simultaneously, at least five cities in San Bernardino County – Adelanto, Barstow, Hesperia, Needles and San Bernardino – are allowing or are making preparations to allow the sale of marijuana or marijuana-based products within their boundaries. At least eight other cities are allowing or at least tolerating the sale of a cannabis-based product – CBD oil – within their jurisdictions.
That is just one element of the schizophrenic approach governmental officials are taking to marijuana at present. For nearly a century, from 1907 until 1996, the use, possession, sale, cultivation, distribution or refinement of marijuana was strictly illegal in California. Marijuana remains classified by the federal government as a Schedule 1 Narcotic, considered in the same class as heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine. In 1996, the passage of Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use of Marijuana Act, by California’s voters made the sale and use of marijuana for medical purposes legal in the state, pursuant to the user having a medical prescription for it. Until Needles in 2012 became the lone exception, San Bernardino County’s cities steadfastly refused to allow medical marijuana dispensaries to operate within their jurisdictions. The passage of the Adult Use of Marijuana Act four-and-a-half years ago, allowing those over 21 to use the drug for its intoxicative effect, has spurred some cities in the county to seek to cash in on the sale of the drug by allowing, in some cases, the retail sale of the plant, in other cases the cultivation of the plant, in other cases the refinement of marijuana and in the case of Hesperia, the distribution of the drug. Most San Bernardino County municipalities are yet resisting allowing marijuana to be commercially available.
The county board of supervisors, which oversees the unincorporated portion of the 20,105-square mile county outside its 22 incorporated cities and two incorporated towns – roughly 94 percent of the county land mass or 19,099 square miles – has perpetuated the marijuana ban.
Hence, Sheriff John McMahon has continued with the eradication/suppression effort. In doing so, he has ostensibly had substantial success. His department is in possession of helicopters outfitted with visual scanners that employ spectrophotometers that can immediately detect the highly distinctive color of marijuana plants. This tool alone has enabled the department to search for needle upon needle in the haystack that is the largest county geographically in the lower 48 states, a land mass larger than Rhode Island, Connecticut, Delaware and New Jersey combined. The department is also able to make a digitized analysis of water and electricity use by the customers of the county’s various utility companies to detect the telltale signs of a marijuana-growing enterprise. Still, the more sophisticated operators of unlicensed marijuana farms, in particular the ones who were functioning a decade, two decades, three decades and four decades ago when marijuana was outright illegal and who were not getting caught then, remain, with only rare exceptions, a step or two or three or four ahead of those on the lookout for them.
What is for many observers the most amusing or most enraging – depending on one’s attitude and point of view – element of the bureaucratic schizophrenia surrounding the marijuana issue in San Bernardino County is the general lack of prosecution that ensues from the suppression/eradication effort. In scores of cases in San Bernardino County over the last few years, individuals have been caught growing quantities of marijuana that would have virtually ensured a perpetrator caught doing the same thing one, two, three, four, five or six decades ago get a 20-year or longer prison sentence.
In most cases now, those caught are not arrested. Some are cited. Where arrests do take place, it is most often for another crime unrelated to marijuana that was noted during the operation. The district attorney’s office, which functions under the aegis of state law, has apparently lost its stomach for prosecuting those caught engaged in marijuana-related activity.
For reasons that have not been explained, despite the consideration that the sheriff’s department is using federal money in the form of grants from the Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program, the U.S. Attorney’s Office does not seem interested, particularly, in prosecuting those who have been caught, in most cases red-handed, growing marijuana in contravention to federal law.
During operations in the greater Twentynine Palms area, Desert Heights and Landers on May 5 and May 7, raids were carried out on marijuana cultivation facilities on property near Sespe Street and Alta Avenue in Landers; Covela Avenue and Napa Road in Landers; property adjacent to Napa Road and Alta Avenue in Landers; at Covela Avenue and Sespe Street in Landers; at another site close to Covela Avenue and Sespe Street in Landers; at a site proximate to Kelsey Boulevard and Presswood Drive in Landers; on property at Kachina Drive and Shoshone Valley Road in Desert Heights and at a facility located on property in the 1200 block of Sunrise Avenue in Desert Heights.
It is unclear how many citations were issued by the task force to those believed involved in the cultivation activity.
Five arrests were made, two of which related to activity that could be established as exceeding that of unlicensed cultivation of marijuana.
Carlos Avila, 40, of Sinaloa, Mexico, and Octavio Perez, 25, of Guanajuanto, Mexico, who were at the Napa Road/Alta Avenue operation in Landers, were in possession of handguns and anabolic steroids. They were arrested on charges of cultivation of marijuana and possession of a controlled substance while armed.
Carlos Pulido, 23 of Michoacan, Mexico, was arrested at the Kachina Drive and Shoshone Valley Road operation.
Fernando Gonzalez, 36, and Christian Lopez, 25, both of Michoacan, Mexico, were arrested at the Sunrise Avenue farm.
Pulido, Gonzalez and Lopez are being charged with marijuana cultivation. It is not clear why they were taken into custody rather than being cite released as has lately been the case of those involved in unlicensed marijuana growing.
The previous week, within a single six-hour span on Thursday April 29, the sheriff’s department marijuana eradication task force engaged in raids on five separate agricultural operations, seizing over 2,300 marijuana plants from a location within the 73500 block of Two Mile Road, property at Emerald Street and Pine Springs Avenue, one property at the intersection of Dunlap Road and Canyon Road, another property proximate to Dunlap Road and Canyon Road, and a site at the corner of Redhill Road and Bermuda Avenue, all of which fall within Twentynine Palms and nearby Desert Heights.
-Mark Gutglueck

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