By Mark Gutglueck
Since the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department initiated what it has dubbed Operation Hammer Strike on August 30 of this year, its deputies had seized through twelve weeks of effort as of November 26 what the department calculated as exceeding $200 million worth of marijuana being grown at unlicensed operations.
Questions are emerging with regard to the accounting for the sheriff’s department’s most recent version of its longstanding marijuana eradication project, which under the 2021-2022 county budget is being subsidized with $4 million earmarked by the board of supervisors. The department, under former Sheriff John McMahon, had as of January begun a concerted effort to find and shutter marijuana farms operating in the relative open, generally using sunlight to cultivate the plants, primarily in San Bernardino County’s vast Mojave Desert. While those operations sometimes entailed the arrest of those present at the farms and involved in their operations, particularly if they demonstrated themselves to be involved in another crime such as carrying an unlicensed firearm, most of those in place at the makeshift cultivation sites were cited and released or simply released.
McMahon’s voluntary resignation as sheriff became effective in July, shortly after the beginning of the current fiscal year. His successor, Shannon Dicus, has now burned through nearly $3 million of the $4 million that was set aside to rid San Bernardino County’s vast desert outback of the scourge of unpermitted marijuana farms, having expanded the sheriff’s department’s marijuana enforcement program from one to five teams while funding their constant activity for more than three months. The deputies, five sergeants and one lieutenant assigned to those teams have fanned out over the desert, from Piñón Hills to Phelan to Oak Hills to Summit Valley to Hesperia to Apple Valley to Victorville to Oro Grande to Helendale to Silverlakes to Adelanto to Hinkley to Four Corners to Barstow to Yermo to Newberry Springs to Twentynine Palms to Joshua Tree to Desert Heights to Landers to Johnson Valley to Lucerne Valley. With the added funding, the department has proven more aggressive than it was earlier in the year, and those caught at the sites where the cultivation is ongoing have been arrested and in most cases jailed, since the funding the sheriff’s department is receiving allows for defraying the cost of housing the arrestees at the sheriff’s various jails.
As of last week, according to the department, it has taken down 1,623 illegal outdoor greenhouses in the past 12 weeks, raided and shuttered 14 indoor growing operations, served 292 search warrants in conjunction with the operations, made 346 arrests, cut down or uprooted and carried off 292,192 marijuana plants, otherwise seized 56,249.4 pounds of processed marijuana, taken out of the possession of those involved in illicit marijuana production a total of 87 guns, confiscated $849,449 in cash which the department said was the proceeds from illicit marijuana sales, discovered in the course of its operations eight illegal electrical bypasses, and has come across and dismantled five THC extraction labs. As an inadvertent byproduct of the sheriff’s department’s activity, deputies have seized eight grams of methamphetamine that was in the possession of those it arrested.
Though the department did not provide its estimate of the total wholesale product value of cannabis seized during the 12 weeks of Operation Hammer Strike’s effort, it did provide one for the first eleven weeks, that being $194,052,220.
The department did not offer a legend or key to how the $194,052,220 figure had been calculated. It is just that lack of clarity that has brought the accounting of the operation into question.
Further questions attain to what has become of the product seized.
Complicating factors include the generic description of the plants uprooted, a lack of transparency as to the ultimate disposition of those plants and processed marijuana, difficulties with or lack of availability of records relating to the individuals arrested and charged along with the quantification and/or preservation of the marijuana they are accused of cultivating or harvesting and lax custody or preservation of the processed substances that were a product of the illicit cultivation activity.
Earlier this year, under McMahon, the department made a display of large amounts of seized marijuana being destroyed. In at least some of the earlier operations, no charges against the growers or those manning the growing operations were forthcoming. Thus, preserving the marijuana seized as evidence was not necessary. Under the even more energetic program being carried out under Dicus, however, those encountered at the farms are being arrested rather than merely being issued citations as was occurring previously. This implies that those being arrested are going to be formally charged and prosecuted. Indeed, officials with the department have made statements to that effect, and the district attorney’s office is known to be beefing up its staff to handle what is anticipated to be an influx of over 1,000 cases against defendants for participating in illicit cultivation of marijuana or owning property where that activity took place.
While the vast majority of those defendants in mounting their legal defenses if they mount legal defenses at all would not likely be sophisticated enough to put the court system and prosecutors through their paces, a minority of the defendants probably will. For that reason, preserving the evidence against them – the uprooted or already harvested marijuana – is called for. The department has not given much in the way of public information regarding what it is doing with the marijuana it is seizing. If it has developed a protocol for handling that evidence, it has not disclosed it. Nor has the department given an indication of where it is storing that evidence or what security procedure it has in place to maintain its integrity or prevent marijuana plants that were seized in one raid from being confused with marijuana plants seized in another raid.
While in many cases, the owners of the property where the illicit marijuana farms being operated in the desert were actively involved in the cultivation or were knowledgeable of it, the Sentinel has learned that a number of the illegal operations had sprouted up on properties where absentee landowners were entirely uninvolved and had no idea of what the trespassers had set up on their secondary or tertiary property. It is the growing prospect that the sheriff’s department, the district attorney’s office and the county itself through the policies county supervisors are now contemplating putting into place are going to initiate blanket legal or administrative action against landowners who are in fact the victims of trespass and are innocent of any criminality that will very likely result in the sheriff’s department ultimately being faced with restrictions on the autonomy and liberty of action it has so far exercised during Operation Hammer Strike.
In providing the statistics relating to Operation Hammer Strike, the department specified the number of plants but did not go beyond that description. The size or maturity of the plants was not given. Neither did the department distinguish between the various strains of marijuana that were seized. It did not quantify the uprooted marijuana in total or each plant individually by weight.
Maturity, strain and weight are all factors in determining the monetary value of marijuana.
A marijuana plant in the end stages of its growth and immediately upon harvesting will weigh substantially more than it does after it has been dried. Ordinarily, most marijuana that is sold and consumed has been dried or “cured.” Marijuana on both the illicit market and when retailed legally is generally sold in quantities measured by weight. Thus, to determine the monetary value of marijuana with any degree of accuracy, its weight must be considered.
There are myriad strains of marijuana. Cultivators constantly refine, crossbreed and hybridize marijuana to fine-tune the type, quantities and relative quantities or balance of what are recognized by chemists as 113 total cannabinoids present in the plant, those being marijuana’s constituent ingredients which provide for the drug’s palliative and psychoactive effects. In particular, strains containing a higher percentage of tetrahydrocannabinol, the principal psychoactive constituent known by its acronym THC, are usually more valuable. The department does not appear to have made much in the way of an effort in distinguishing what type of marijuana it is uprooting. As a consequence, the estimation of the valuation of the marijuana it has seized is questionable.
Moreover, the department has not made any attempt, or so it would appear, to factor in the cost variable of what its operations mean in terms of the price of marijuana locally. Under the principle of supply and demand, the more plentiful the supply of any item, substance or material, calculated against a constant demand for that commodity, the less expensive it is. The converse – dwindling availability while demand for it continues – results in an increase in price. Unquestionably, measured by any rational standard, Sheriff Dicus’s Operation Hammer Strike has been unprecedentedly successful in eradicating marijuana cultivation in San Bernardino County. That action has put a major dent in the availability of marijuana both on the illicit market as well as to licensed and permitted operators of dispensaries and shops selling the drug for its intoxicative purpose. This has undoubtedly, at least temporarily and regionally, resulted in an increase in the value of marijuana and its retail price. It is unclear if in making its calculation of the value of the marijuana it has seized, the department considered this factor.
Whether the sheriff and his deputies are conscious of that factor or not, Operation Hammer Strike is proving to be of benefit to those classes of marijuana purveyors who are alternately being protected by elements of San Bernardino County’s political establishment, which includes the politicians at the head of the county who provided the sheriff’s department with the $4 million being used to eradicate the marijuana being grown outdoors in the desert, and the more sophisticated marijuana cultivators who have devised methods of carrying out their agricultural endeavors without getting caught.
In 1996, California’s voters with the passage of Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use of Marijuana Act, legalized the use of marijuana for medical purposes throughout the state, and made it legal for dispensaries to operate, subject to local control. For sixteen years, however, no jurisdiction in San Bernardino County, including its 22 cities, two incorporated towns and the county government itself, would provide operating permits to any dispensaries. In 2012, the City of Needles relented, and allowed dispensaries to begin operations. In 2015, the City of Adelanto began allowing large-scale indoor marijuana cultivation operations to set up operations in its industrial zones. In 2016, with the passage of Proposition 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, which allowed for the use and sale of marijuana for its intoxicative effect, Adelanto graduated to allowing all order of commercial cannabis activity, with Mayor Richard Kerr publicly stating that it was his intent that Adelanto become the marijuana capital of California and, in time, the world. Simultaneously, through the initiative process, voters in the city of San Bernardino passed a ballot measure calling for marijuana to be available for sale there. Since that time, Hesperia city officials have allowed marijuana distribution operations to operate within certain areas in its city limits, and Barstow officials have consented to commercial marijuana/cannabis operations setting up in their city. Needles has since consented to allowing the marijuana and cannabis-based products used for recreational purposes to be sold in that city along with medical marijuana. San Bernardino now allows all order of commercial cannabis activity, from cultivation of marijuana to THC extraction to manufacturing of cannabis-related products to research on marijuana to warehousing and packaging to distribution to wholesaling the drug to the retailing of marijuana and cannabis products.
In several instances, the politicians in the San Bernardino County cities where highly lucrative commercial cannabis activity has been permitted have become enmeshed in graft and corruption. In Adelanto, former City Councilman Jermaine Wright, while he was still in office, was arrested by the FBI for, and was charged by the U.S. Attorney’s Office with, accepting a bribe in exchange for agreeing to shield a marijuana distribution business and its operator from being subject to city regulation. Former Adelanto Mayor Rich Kerr, after he left office, was indicted by a federal grand jury and charged with receiving bribes from cannabis-related business operators who had obtained permits and licensing in the city. Adelanto-based marijuana and cannabis-based business operators continue to deliver bribes to some of the politicians in Adelanto who succeeded Wright and Kerr, as well as to city management. In San Bernardino, though they have not been arrested or charged, Mayor John Valdivia and his political ally, Councilman Juan Figueroa, have been implicated in bribery schemes involving marijuana or cannabis product-related businesses that have succeeded in getting operating permits in the city or have applied to obtain such licensing. Those bribes reportedly consisted of money provided directly to Valdivia which was laundered through his consulting company, AAdvantage Comm LLC, or political contributions provided to Valdivia and Figueroa.
Former San Bernardino County Supervisor Bill Postmus, through his company, Mountain States Consulting Group, as well as his business and political associates including among others Dino DeFazio and Jeremiah Brosowske, has begun filtering money originating from entrepreneurs who have already established marijuana or cannabis-based businesses or who are interested in setting up marijuana and cannabis-based commercial companies to politicians, including those in San Bernardino, Hesperia and Adelanto. Postmus further began providing money to three members of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors – Chairman and Fourth District Supervisor Curt Hagman, Third District Supervisor Dawn Rowe and Fifth District Supervisor Paul Cook – originally disguised as political contributions coming from him and his political associates. Postmus and his team were instrumental in convincing the board of supervisors to provide the $4 million to the sheriff’s department to fund Operation Hammer Strike. Supervisors Rowe and Cook, in whose districts the county’s desert area is located, were among the most vociferous elements in advocating action to shutter the illicit marijuana farms.
Operation Hammer Strike has assiduously avoided targeting the marijuana cultivation enterprises that are operated by businesses that are represented by Postmus and Mountain States Consulting Group, which include cultivation facilities in Adelanto, San Bernardino, Ontario, Cajon, Wrightwood, Hodge, Searles Valley, Harvard, Needles, Danby and Cadiz, including a large indoor facility owned and operated by Postmus’s political and business associate DeFazio.
Postmus has consistently refused to disclose how much of the money he is taking in from the various marijuana and cannabis-based commercial operations he is kicking back to Hagman, Cook, Rowe, Valdivia, Figueroa, current Adelanto Mayor Gabriel Reyes and Adelanto City Manager Jessie Flores.
Next Tuesday, December 7, the board of supervisors is set to consider, according to its meeting agenda, “a proposed ordinance to add Section 84.34.080 [to the county code], relating to abatement of items used to facilitate cannabis cultivation, and amend Section 86.09.090, relating to classification of violations as a misdemeanor offense.”
In essence, what the proposed ordinance will do is allow the sheriff’s department and the county’s code enforcement division to legally remove greenhouses, cisterns, trailers and other equipment or items used by cultivators at marijuana cultivation sites after the sheriff’s department concludes it eradication operations, and to criminally charge anyone on whose property marijuana is being grown.
By Mark Gutglueck