Sheriff’s Office Active In Raids At Marijuana Farms, After Which Few Prosecutions Take Place

The focus of the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department task force that is looking toward suppressing proliferating unlicensed marijuana cultivating facilities appears to be moving eastward.
On Thursday, April 29, sheriff’s personnel, including deputies, detectives, at least two sergeants and one lieutenant were heavily engaged in raids on five separate agricultural operations entailing large numbers of marijuana plants in Twentynine Palms and nearby Desert Heights.
The department assigned 11 deputies and detectives to do the heavy lifting and grunt work, while the sergeants and lieutenants monitored the results. In a six-and-a-half hour span, search warrants were served and all traces of marijuana cultivation, including over 2,300 marijuana plants were seized 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.
While the deputies and detectives encountered some people known or suspected to have been involved in the cultivation activity during the course of the operations, those individuals were not arrested. Two men, Pai Sivilay, 67, and Somkhit Sivilay, 35, were cited for illegal cultivation of marijuana, but released.
The operation at Emerald Street and Pine Springs Avenue was the site of a previous raid on April 16, at which time 476 marijuana plants were seized. When deputies and detectives returned 13 days later, 466 new seedlings were well on their way to maturity.
Despite the vigor with which the sheriff’s department is carrying out its anti-marijuana cultivation operations, there is a question as to the program’s legitimacy in the face of shifting societal, attitudinal and legal standards. 1996’s Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use of Marijuana Act, legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes. Nevertheless, marijuana remained outlawed for recreational use. In San Bernardino County, in particular, local authorities in past decades made a public show of being officially opposed to the use of marijuana in any form. Collectively, they continued to disallow the sale or distribution of marijuana for medical use by denying permits to those seeking to establish dispensaries. This led to the intensification of a widespread underground marijuana distribution network, one which in any event had already existed prior to the passage of Proposition 215. That black market continued to flourish, at an even greater intensity than before, continuing to expose those below the age of majority to easy marijuana availability.
Corruption of local law enforcement persisted, with anywhere from a quarter to a third of police officers routinely carrying a quantity of the drug in their patrol cars to use as a pretext for detaining, citing, arresting or taking physical action against citizens encountered in the field.
In 2012, public officials in Needles, the county’s least populated and easternmost city with 4,900 residents on the shore of the Colorado River across from Arizona, elected to take advantage of its location at the gateway to California, becoming the first of the county’s 24 municipalities to bow to the new social reality, clearing the way for five licensed marijuana dispensaries to operate within its city limits.
In July 2014, San Bernardino City Attorney Gary Saenz, taking stock of the number of pot shops sprouting up in the county’s largest city, offered his view that the cost and difficulty of shutting down dispensaries made enforcement of the city’s ban on the enterprises “futile.”
In 2016, Proposition 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, was passed by California’s voters.
The City of Adelanto, which was not on the best of financial footing, moved rapidly to take advantage of the law, seeking to open the city to large scale marijuana cultivation operations as well as manufacturing concerns processing and wielding the plant into edibles and poultices for physical maladies, a strategy its elected officials said would generate substantial revenue for the city. It further legalized dispensaries and pot shops.
In Barstow, 39 miles north, Rich Harpole, had acceded to the elected position of city councilman after spending all of his adult working life once he left the military as a police officer. In his 24 years with the Barstow Police Department, Harpole had risen to the rank of lieutenant before retiring. A primary element of his assignment during his last decade-and-a-half with the police force was overseeing drug interdiction efforts. In the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, Harpole had participated directly or indirectly in the arrest of more than 2,000 marijuana law offenders.
After he retired, Harpole was elected to the Barstow City Council. With Proposition 64’s passage, Barstow like most of the other cities in San Bernardino County fell into a state of paralysis, stalling either deliberately or inadvertently in the face of the change in the law. By 2019, when the city got around to looking into updating its ordinances regarding both medical and recreational marijuana sales, Harpole was made chairman of an ad-hoc committee, which was to look at the ins and outs of allowing the cultivation, sale, distribution, and manufacturing of marijuana, cannabis or cannabis-based products in the city. Licensing of marijuana based operations, the committee determined, was to take place pursuant to a licensing or permitting regime, one that would entail requirements that such operations meet a set of criteria, be licensed as businesses within the city and be subject to a tax specifically levied on the growers of marijuana or the manufacturers and purveyors of cannabis or cannabis-based products. The bottom line was that the City of Barstow was going to make sure it got its cut of revenue to be made from the newfound tolerance of marijuana as an acceptable intoxicant. Harpole, who had spent the most productive years of his life as a crusader against marijuana, now had the opportunity to make sure his former employer, through whom he receives his $82,000 per year pension, brings in plenty of cannabis cash.
In April 2019, it became publicly known that Harpole was the architect of how at least 15 percent of the money from the sale of marijuana in Barstow would flow into the City of Barstow’s coffers. Overnight, Harpole had become the poster boy for hypocritical law enforcement officers ready to bust people at a moment’s notice for smoking a joint, while remaining simultaneously prepared to take in money from the sale of marijuana as long as it made its way into their pockets, the more the better.
It is the specter of Harpole, who never actually worked for the sheriff’s department but rather for Barstow PD, that is in part preventing the sheriff’s department from criminally charging those pursuing the enterprise of growing massive amounts of marijuana in the desert.
Indeed phenomenal numbers of plants are being germinated and grown, using both the desert sun and artificial lights.
In the face of California’s seismic cultural shift that was signaled by the passage of Proposition 64, San Bernardino County officials at virtually every level were stymied. The traditional stand they had uniformly, or almost uniformly, taken against the drug was compromised, and if they insisted on slamming the door on the would-be entrepreneurs looking to traffic in the substance now that it was legal, they ran a degree of risk. Still, the sheriff’s office in 2017, 2018, 2019, into 2020 and yet now is maintaining its traditional attitude which holds that the proliferation of cannabis runs contrary to an orderly community.
Only in Adelanto, where the political leadership was on the take and receiving sizable kickbacks from the marijuana entrepreneurs, did the sheriff’s department stand down. If the deep-pocketed cannabis industry moguls who were making large scale donations to the members of the city council had their operations intruded upon by the sheriff’s office, the political leadership in Adelanto could reverse the action a previous city council had taken in 2002, when the Adelanto Police Department was closed out and the sheriff’s department was contracted with to provide the city with law enforcement coverage. In order not to upset the pay-for-play deals in place in Adelanto, the sheriff’s department allowed, while the ruling coalition of Mayor Rich Kerr and councilmembers Jermaine Wright, John Woodard and later Councilwoman Joy Jeannette remained intact, virtually any cannabis-related undertaking within the city limits of Adelanto licensed or not alone.
Elsewhere, it was a different story.
Despite California’s passage of Proposition 64 and the enactment of the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, under federal law marijuana remains a Schedule 1 narcotic considered as dangerous as heroin and cocaine and subject to very stiff federal penalties.
Since 1999, the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department had 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 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.
Given the ground rules under which that effort has proceeded, some people, including ones who favor the anti-marijuana crusade and those opposed to it, have come to wonder if McMahon isn’t himself smoking copious quantities of the product his deputies have been seizing.
Indeed, there is an undeniably schizophrenic quality to the sheriff’s department’s effort.
The task force has been prodigiously effective in eradicating the crops it has found. Along the way, it has identified hundreds of people involved in those operations, from the owners of the property where the farms exist, to the farmers themselves, to the investors putting up the capital to give the farmers the equipment and wherewithal to set up the operations, to the workers at the farms to the lower level operatives who then harvest, cure, package and move the product to market or the various middlemen and their customers. Yet very few of those identified as participating in these operations have been arrested, let alone prosecuted. Those arrested have been rapidly released from custody, and not charged by the district attorney’s office with any offense relating to unlicensed marijuana cultivation. In the relatively rare instances where arrests have occurred, it has generally been for crimes unrelated to the cultivation or marketing of marijuana, criminal offenses that in the course of the task force’s operations came to their attention.
The San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office, which has the authority to prosecute state law, is unwilling to prosecute those involved in marijuana cultivation, no matter how massive the operation, primarily because the Adult Use of Marijuana Act has so transformed the law with regard to marijuana. Where the growth of the drug is occurring, even without proper permits and licensing, the activity falls under the rubric of California civil law and the government code rather than the penal code, prosecutors contend. The district attorney’s office is doing nothing to interfere with the sheriff’s department’s operations; it is simply not assisting it in any follow-up with regard to those operations.
Curiously, even though it is using federal money to cover a portion of its costs in carrying out its energetic marijuana cultivation raids, the sheriff’s department either has not sent the casework pertaining to those raids to federal prosecutors or, if it has, the U.S. Attorney’s Office has not acted against the owners, operators or workers at those plantations.
Sheriff McMahon has not provided any sort of response to questions as to why he continues to devote a significant portion of his department’s resources to the marijuana eradication effort when doing so has resulted, over the course of more than four years, in so few prosecutions.
An issue is the ostensible versus actual success of the eradication effort. There is no doubt a substantial amount of marijuana has been seized and destroyed in the course of the department’s operations. Nevertheless, observers have a real sense that those whose activities have been foreclosed are the less sophisticated domestic cultivators and a statistical cross section of the massive number of foreign marijuana farm operators. Both statistical analysis of available information on the operations and anecdotal accounts indicate that American citizens who have a long time or in-depth understanding of the county, its institutions and its lay of the land, have been able, for the most part, to fly well under the radar of the sheriff’s department and its marijuana eradication task force. By removing their operations to areas where detection is difficult or impossible and by eliminating a reliance on traditional suppliers of the necessities of such operations such as electrical or water utilities, which will extend to law enforcement access to information on customer usage patterns, the more sophisticated operators carry out their cultivation without detection or even suspicion. It would appear that all, or most, of these more sophisticated operators are Americans or Canadians, with a very few being Mexican Nationals. A large number of the wave of unlicensed marijuana farm operators in San Bernardino County are Mexicans or Asians
Relying on the sheer expansiveness of 20,105-square mile San Bernardino County, these less sophisticated operators have set up enterprises indoors all over the county and in what are seemingly out-of-the-way places outdoors most frequently in the desert and mountains. The sheriff’s department, which has helicopters outfitted with visual scanners that employ spectrophotometers that can immediately detect the highly distinct color of even a single marijuana plant let alone a greenhouse packed with them, has had substantial success in finding cultivation operations. At present there are an estimated 2,500 to 3,000 marijuana cultivation operations in San Bernardino County set up by Asians alone. Given these raw numbers, over the last two years, the vast majority of those associated with marijuana cultivation operations caught by the sheriff’s department have been Asians, virtually none of whom have been naturalized.
Thus, practically speaking, the trend in San Bernardino County is that most unlicensed marijuana cultivation operations are ones being carried out by Asians relatively recently arrived in America.
Extrapolating on available data, the most profitable marijuana cultivation operations appear to be ones designed and operated by veterans of the illicit marijuana trade whose operations preexisted the advent of the Adult Use of Marijuana Act.
The sheriff’s department has not relented in its marijuana eradication effort in 2021.
On January 6 at 8:30 a.m., the sheriff’s Marijuana Enforcement Team served a search warrant in the 2600 block of Parkdale Road in Adelanto, where they found 19,998 marijuana plants along with 186 pounds of harvested and partially cured marijuana. Cited were Shihua Want, 70, of Adelanto; Shi Xin Jiang, 66, of Adelanto; Liyon Dong, 36, of Adelanto; Xin Zheng Guan, 38, of Adelanto; Mei Jin You, 49, of Adelanto; Chun Tao Lu, 41, of Adelanto; Xiaoqun Yu, 53, of Adelanto; Jian Feng Yu, 47, of Adelanto; Wan Huang Wu, 42, of Adelanto; Xing Qiang Li, 45, of Adelanto; Xihong Huang, 26, of Adelanto; and Guang Yi, 22, of El Monte.
On January 7, 2021, the task force conducted two raids, one in Lucerne Valley and one in Johnson Valley in which 1,903 marijuana plants and 306.5 pounds of harvested marijuana were seized on January 27. Arrested in conjunction with those cultivation operations were Basemen Hernandez-Cruz, 30, of Oxnard, and his brother, Gerardo Hernandez-Cruz, 21, of Santa Maria. They have since been released.
On February 2, a team of deputies and investigators, in possession of a search warrant and in response to reports that a massive unlicensed and illicit marijuana cultivation operation was in place on property in El Mirage, swooped onto the site 12.5 miles northwest of Adelanto. They found 12 people on or immediately proximate to the property, which featured greenhouses in which 18,884 plants were growing.
After a brief investigation into the circumstance, five of the dozen people at the site were arrested – Chen Guo Jin, 48, of Sanford, Florida; Johnny Chan, 39, of Los Angeles; Zhi Fei Qian, 57, of Apple Valley; Kefei Wang, 34, of Concord, California; and Zhen Williamson, 52, of Denham Springs, Louisiana.
All five were released shortly thereafter
With the progression of the task force’s focus moving eastward, by summer it is likely to encounter at least some of the more sophisticated and lucrative cultivation efforts, ones which are proximate to the Colorado River and thus make use of the plentiful water it provides. Those operations also utilize the sun as a light source during the day, augmented by artificial light at night to provide a relatively short four-month growing cycle for the plants.
The challenge the operators of these very sophisticated farms are to soon face will consist of being able to continue to camouflage the operations while being subjected to the extremely intense scrutiny the task force will bring to bear.
California law allows adults to engage in the growing of up to six marijuana plants. Authorities have in many cases chosen to look the other way with regard to gardens involving a dozen or more plantings.
The operations interesting the sheriff’s task force have been boldly large, in some cases rivaling or exceeding the size of industrial cannabis nurseries. Regulations layered into the law further disallow in most jurisdictions, as in the case of San Bernardino County, the growing of marijuana outdoors. Commercial cultivation of cannabis must take place indoors under such regulations. Moreover, such operations require a permit and licensing.
Mark Gutglueck

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