Sheriff Briefs Apple Valley Town Council On His Department’s Desert Marijuana Eradication Efforts

Four-and-one-half years after the voters in California passed Proposition 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, the attitudes of most of San Bernardino County’s political leadership has not caught up with the spirit the outcome of that vote embodied.
For more than a century, marijuana being used for its intoxicative effect was illegal in the Golden State, and tens of thousands of people had gone to prison for growing it, possessing it, smoking it or trafficking in it during that time. In response to marijuana’s legalization with the passage of Proposition 64 in 2016, San Bernardino County’s governmental structure and that of its two incorporated towns and and eighteen of its twenty incorporated cities resisted going along with the new trend. Only five cities made any shift, with San Bernardino, Adelanto and Needles consenting to allow the plant to be commercially grown and altered into edible and otherwise applicable palliatives and salves, distributed and sold at both the retail and wholesale levels. Barstow has made preparations to permit sales. Hesperia has allowed businesses distributing and delivering the product to exist within its confines.
The continuing prohibition of marijuana and its commercialization elsewhere in San Bernardino has resulted in those looking to profit by cultivating and selling it, either under or outside of the regulatory schemes governments are permitted to engage in under Proposition 64, to try their hand at becoming marijuana cultivators or entrepreneurs. Recognizing that there is a tremendous appetite for the drug and that the collective resolve of San Bernardino County officials together with officials in the towns of Apple Valley and Yucca Valley and the cities of Chino Hills, Chino, Montclair, Ontario, Upland, Rancho Cucamonga, Fontana, Rialto, Colton, Grand Terrace, Loma Linda, Highland, Redlands, Yuciapa, Big Bear, Twentynine Palms and Victorville to prevent its production and restrict its availability is artificially boosting its price, daring indivduals have undertaken to cultivate it in small medium and large and gargantuan quantities in many places where they believe they can do so undetected. As a consequence, unlicensed marijuana farms over the last several years have flourished in the more remote areas of the county, in particular the vast reaches of San Bernardino County’s Mojave Desert.
Put upon by these operations, residents in those areas have made objections to them. Beginning earlier this year, the sheriff’s department has stepped up its enforcement and eradication efforts against those enterprises.
While the department has succeeded in raiding dozens of operations and uprooting literally tens of thousands plants, the sheriff’s department’s energetic efforts in this regard have resulted in few substantive criminal prosecutions. This has created some degree of controversy.
Sheriff John McMahon came before the Apple Valley Town Council at its meeting on Tuesday this week to offer what he said was an “update” of his department’s actions, and explain the legal limitations and challenges his department faces in carrying out its efforts.
We’ve heard from residents primarily in the more rural and unincorporated areas that are feeling the impact of these illegal marijuana grows,” McMahon said. “You’re fortunate in the town, and I know you have a great ordinance in place to penalize financially those that are growing illegally. Code enforcement and our folks here work very closely with one another and your primary issue here is indoor grows. [There are] very few outdoor grows in the Town of Apple Valley, and you’re really aggressive in making sure that you send a message that they’re not allowed. What’s happened in the unincorporated area and the more rural areas of the county is we saw a number of grows start poppin’ up here and there, and I will tell you, they grew faster than we could keep up with. We have one marijuana enforcement team in the county made up of five personnel. There’s just simply no way they can keep up with it, although last year, we did a special operation called Operation Weedwhacker with a bunch of folks from other parts of the county that came together, and they did serve 400 search warrants on illegal marijuana cultivation operations in the unincorporated county area, and we were able to take those grows down.”
McMahon said, “We’re at a point now where there’s about 860 grows that we’re aware of and ready to go after that were illegally being operated, and there’s probably at least another 200 if not more that we just haven’t got to yet and haven’t identified, don’t have coordinates for or addresses for. So, it’s over a 1,000, I guarantee you, throughout the county. It starts in Twentynine Palms and goes completely across the desert through Johnson Valley, Lucerne Valley, through the north part of the desert here, all the way over to Phelan, Pinon Hills and just keeps rollin’ over right into L.A. County. You may have seen some news coverage. LA. County’s got the same problem that we do, and they’re doing a big operation, and we’re assisting them, and ultimately they’re going to assist us here in the next month or so with some other grows that we have here in our part of the county.”
McMahon said his department is scrambling to address the issue but is overwhelmed with the enormity of the cultivation activity that is ongoing.
The primary reason for these illegal grows is just simply the money and the lack of consequences,” he said. “So, oftentimes what’s happening is these people are buying a plot of land, which oftentimes is relatively cheap out in the middle of nowhere, and you can describe it as in the middle of nowhere. I mean, you fly it with a helicopter and you’ll see lights and a grow way out where you would think there’d never be anything. They’re sinking a well, generally, if there’s water available. They’re getting a permit to sink a well. They’re hiring a well-driller. I was in Newberry Springs not long ago, and a well-driller actually got up and addressed the crowd, told us exactly what he’s doing, and he’s sinking wells. He’s getting permits just like everybody else. And those folks that buy that piece of property, sink a well legally, they’re entitled to whatever the acre-feet are deeded to that piece of property, and in some cases in Newberry Springs, it’s ten acre-feet a year. So, they have that right to use that water. And then they set up the hoop houses, and they start growin’ marijuana, and they turn it in about three or four months, and they start another crop. Under Prop 64, not a lot of people caught it, but almost at that last page of that proposition on the ballot was converting, growing, commercially growing or cultivation of marijuana from a felony to a misdemeanor. So, we catch somebody at one of those grows, they get prosecuted for a misdemeanor and a $500 fine. All we can do is take down the plants and haul those away, because that’s the criminal activity. The hoop house, all the other things we see there are not criminal in nature and have to be followed up by code enforcement. And to be quite honest, the county has limited resources as it relates to code enforcement.”
Current laws as defined under Proposition 64 has restricted government’s ability to deal with the expansion of marijuana production, McMahon said, opining that there is a need for draconian legislation.
So, we’re tryin’ to work with the county to come up with an ordinance that will help give us the authority and certainly the deterrent to prevent some of this,” the sheriff said. “It’s going to have to be similar to what you guys have where you fine people. Needles has the same thing. The county’s going to have to develop an ordinance, and they’re workin’ on it with all the department heads, to fine these guys that are growin’, and whether it be a thousand dollars a plant, or $5,000 a plant, or $10,000 is up for the county to decide. But the misdemeanor and $500 fine is not going to deter these guys. It’s just not going to do it. They’re going to continue to grow. When we take it down, they either move to another location, or they wait for a month or two, replant and they regrow on the same site. And so, it’s just tough to keep up with the increase. There’s so much money to be made. So, the only way we’re going to deal with it is an ordinance that fines them, and then if they don’t pay, then they lien the property and, you know the rest of the story. So, I think that will be effective.”
McMahon said a move in that direction is already being made.
Today, [Third District] Supervisor [Dawn] Rowe at the board of supervisors [meeting], introduced a resolution to send to Sacramento to change it from a misdemeanor to a felony again,” McMahon said. “Apparently that can be done in the legislature with a two-thirds vote, even though it was voted on by the people. So, that’s what they were talkin’ about this morning at the board of supervisors. Assemblymember Thurston Smith as well as Tom Lackey both came out, rode in the helicopter with our folks and videoed the grows in the desert, and I think they were just as amazed as anybody as to the number and the size. They took that video back to Sacramento, and I think they’re going to use that to try to help get it reversed, and change it back to a felony. With any luck at all that will happen. It may slow down some of it, as well.”
With or without a new law, McMahon said, his department is going to maintain its current efforts, and will indeed intensify them, perhaps as much as five-fold.
But in the meantime, today at the board of supervisors meeting, they authorized additional funding for us,” he said. “Historically, they’ve provided a million dollars in crime suppression money for us to use to address gang-related, violent crime, whatever it might be. Today they authorized $4 million, so we’re going to use it for that traditional criminal activity with gangs and violent crime and that type of thing, but also use it to ramp up our marijuana enforcement. We’re going to go from one five-member team to five teams. We’ll spread throughout the entire county, and just do more of the search warrants, and try to keep up with this ever-increasing illegal cultivation.”
McMahon said, “As you are probably aware, there’s only two places in our county that cultivation of marijuana is legal, other than [growing six plants for] personal use, and that’s Needles and Adelanto.”
McMahon omitted mention of the City of San Bernardino, which has transitioned to allowing all order of marijuana and cannabis-related operations to function within its jurisdiction.
Adelanto has the same issue in the surrounding area and a little bit inside the city limits, illegal grows as well,” McMahon said. “That’s in direct conflict and competition with the legal growers that are paying taxes and paying fees to the city to operate. It is obviously impacting their business, as well. Needles sees the same thing. Needles has an ordinance where they fine, I believe it is $10,000 a plant, if it’s an illegal cultivation operation. That seems to be effective in Needles and seems to be working. So, with any luck at all we can do something like that at the county level, also. So, just to remind everybody, cultivation or growing of marijuana for personal use is legal under Prop 64. You can have six plants for personal use. You can have one ounce of finished product for personal use. The grows that we’re seeing in the rural areas and unincorporated areas where there’s hoop houses and 10,000, 20,000, 30,000 plants: absolutely illegal. Not authorized by the county, and its illegal if it’s not authorized by the county. It’s still the misdemeanor section. That’s the challenge for us. But in the meantime, while we’re waiting for the ordinance at the county and while we’re waiting to see if they change it from a misdemeanor to a felony as it relates to the prosecution piece, we will continue to do everything we can to take these down. It’s a serious quality of life issue. There’s water issues. [There are] those that are stealing water – which is happening – [and] those that are buying water. [In] Lucerne Valley, when I was there at a couple of meetings, there [were] people at the meeting who were selling water to the growers. I don’t believe that’s illegal. I’m not sure who enforces the water rules, but I don’t think that’s illegal. They can sell water from their well if they want to. So, they’re doin’ it, which is continuing to feed the need of the growers. So, that may be a challenge, maybe something they can deal with in that regard, and ultimately work closely with the DA’s office. And there’s some environmental crimes I think the DA’s office is looking into. Obviously, they’re using pesticides and they’re using fertilizer, which potentially could be percolating into the groundwater. I don’t know much about that, but they’re working with the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] to see if there’s something they can do in that regard.”
McMahon said, “We’re trying everything we can, but we’ll keep the pressure on. We’ll continue to take these grows down. We have the additional personnel that will be coming July 1. We’ll keep the pressure on and do what we can to try to control this.”
McMahon indicated there were further criminal issues that sprang from the illicit marijuana cultivation enterprises.
In Newberry Springs, we’ve had two incidents where the guys that are at the grows are armed,” McMahon said. “They’re protecting the grows. They’re carrying rifles and they are confronting people on the road, on the dirt road, trying to figure out who they are and, additionally, they fired at our folks twice. One case, a round went through the windshield of one of our patrol cars. We traced it back and it was an armed guy at one of the illegal grows. Now, I don’t believe he was shooting at the cop car because he knew it was a cop car, a deputy. I think he was worried more about being robbed. They’re really not that afraid of us, because they know that the penalty and prosecution is so small. They’re worried about some bandits coming and stealing from them. So, that’s why they have armed guards there. So, that’s part of the issue.”
Furthermore, McMahon said, the cultivation operations involve “Trash, dust, the water trucks goin’ back and forth. Now, when we did our operation in Lucerne Valley, we partnered up with the CHP. They brought their commercial enforcement guys out. They pulled over all of those trucks haulin’ water, most of which were overweight, unlicensed. The drivers certainly wasn’t licensed to be carrying the weight they were carrying. So, they dealt with that on that side of it as a commercial enforcement officer and we dealt with the grows itself, taking ‘em down. Labor intensive, but it’s important. With any luck at all, we’ll get some of those changes that I spoke about. Maybe with that additional prosecution and penalties for those guys that are growin’, we can slow this down. It’s nearly every community in the rural area of the county, and we’re not the only county that’s having the same problem. If you read the paper, you can see it’s happening in Siskiyou County. It’s happening in Kern County. It’s happening in Fresno County. Anywhere where there’s a large amount of open space where they can set up a growing operation, they’re doing it. It’s simply a lot of money being made.”

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