Sheriff’s officials say is not uncommon to find illegal marijuana grows tucked in with legitimate crops. Nor is it uncommon to find absentee ownership of land where it is grown.

Sheriff’s Lt. Rick Ko showed several slides of illegal grows, including one that was tucked into a corn field in the Dos Palos area. He said the crop is so hardy it is difficult to remove and separate from legitimate crops. Instead of trying to separate those crops, he said, deputies who previously might have used machetes now must use “chainsaws and tractors” and they remove everything.

Several deputies have been overcome by heat exhaustion as they worked to eradicate grows.

Ko traced a history of enforcement that was highly successful in quashing illegal grows in public forests at the same time that the number of grows on the Valley floor exploded. High yield, larger plants are now more common, he said, averaging 3 to 8 pounds per plant.

He said members of law enforcement have followed vehicles transporting marijuana grown in the valley to points across the nation, including the seizure of 185 pounds of marijuana bound for customers at Boston College and being transported by a driver wearing a National Guard uniform “so people would think he was legitimate.”

 He said 40 shipments have been intercepted. Some of those receiving shipments are receiving sentences up to 20 years, he said.

Ko admits frustration with the ease with which people can obtain recommendations from doctors that allow them to grow marijuana for personal use. And he says the production that could be expected from an exempted 99 plants far exceeds the amount that any one person could use.

Taking legal action against absentee landlords is also not simple, said Karen Escobar, assistant U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of California. She said they can use an “innocent owner defense” that the person has no knowledge of the grow.

At the same time, she said, “most landowners comply” with eradication of an illegal grow when her office sends them a letter making them aware of it.

As for the likelihood of Homeland Security entering the enforcement picture, Escobar said that is not expected “unless it can be shown there is an international nexus.”

Escobar advised landowners to include a clause in lease agreements to the effect that immediate eviction would result in case of any illegal activity, including marijuana cultivation.

She warned that legitimate growers and landowners should not “take the law into your hands,” pointing to the seizure of 82 firearms during what was called Operation Mercury in the six-county Eastern District that ranges from Kern to Stanislaus counties. That operation resulted in charges being brought against 84 people, conviction of 25 and seizure of hundreds of thousands of marijuana plants and forfeiture of some properties.

Escobar said it would help greatly if there were an agent of the Environmental Protection Agency in the region so that water could be tested to bring charges on contamination of land and water.

Mims warned of the public safety risk posed by the illegal grows. She cited as an example the murder of a 16-year-old boy who stole some marijuana from a Fresno County grow site.

“It took us months to find his body,” she said. “This is a significant public safety risk.”

 

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