Concerns raised over illegal marijuana grow operations

Marijuana. Katharine Lotze/Signal

Illegal marijuana grows in Acton, Agua Dulce and the Antelope Valley have the attention of Rep. Mike Garcia, R-Santa Clarita, who has spoken out about the operations in recent weeks. 

“These are international, transnational criminal organizations that are getting free land, free water, growing illegal marijuana over several acres,” Garcia wrote in a recent statement. “There are now thousands of these illegal grows — the problem has grown exponentially just in the last two months.” 

Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger, whose 5th District includes the Santa Clarita Valley, has been working on this issue over the past year, according to Christina Mesesan, the supervisor’s justice deputy. She said area residents alerted Barger’s office of the illegal activity. 

“With lockdown and with people not really emerging from their homes, it really provided the perfect opportunity for the growers to come in and essentially squat on private property and cultivate their marijuana there,” she said. 

The area’s climate and open terrain make it appealing for growers, though illegal grow operations exist across the state. 

“We’ve really recognized the difficulty on having a long-term effect on these growers by arresting them,” Mesesan said. “As of this point, what we can arrest them on is water theft, and water theft is actually quite difficult to kind of hold somebody behind bars for a long time.” 

Water theft resulting from illegal marijuana grows may reduce water pressure levels to the point where residents may need to boil their water, she said, noting that Barger’s office is searching for immediate and long-term solutions. 

From a legislative standpoint, Barger is thinking about drafting of or supporting legislation addressing environmental impact. 

“A lot of people don’t realize the environmental impacts that comes from this because the chemicals used to cultivate the marijuana to create the edibles, to garner it down to the ways in which people consume it, leaves a lot of chemicals behind,” said Mesesan. “There’s illegal dumping. It’s poisoning the ground. It’s poisoning the groundwater.” 

On the enforcement side, Barger has participated in working groups with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, which have faced a challenging reality in the field, Mesesan said. 

“The Sheriff’s Department is doing everything that they possibly can,” she said. “This is really just a situation where they are undeniably outnumbered. And the reality of the fact is the amount of sheriff’s deputies that we have in that area is not a lot.” 

The county has also worked with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, which supports municipalities with grants to suppress and eradicate illegal marijuana operations. 

“We do have active marijuana investigations going and we try to focus on the most egregious ones where it’s interstate trafficking or a large-scale organization where there’s other criminal violations going on,” said DEA Special Agent Bill Bodner. 

The DEA devotes most of its staff resources to investigations of methamphetamine, fentanyl overdoses and counterfeit prescription drug pills coming into the U.S., making it harder to address the rapid growth of illegal marijuana grows in California.  

“What’s happened is it’s just gotten to be such a huge business, the challenge for us is we have to prioritize the threats to the community,” he said. 

Bodner said a conservative estimate of the number of illegal grows in the Los Angeles area is 1,000, which use approximately 2 million gallons of water per day. He attributed the “explosion” of marijuana in California to the legalization of recreational use of the drug in 2018. 

“Growers who previously grew marijuana for the drug cartels, many of them have now come up to California and they’re growing marijuana here, because it’s more profitable and they can make more money, and there’s less risk,” said Bodner, noting that California natives and organized crime from around the world alike have found California a “very lucrative market” for marijuana. “There’s no incentive not to do it.” 

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