There is a danger in the desert you might not be aware of. Illegal marijuana operations are sprouting up, some spanning 40 acres or more in the high desert. These are multi-million dollar operations, many protected by armed guards.
Marijuana from illegal indoor grows used to sell for twice as much as the product raised outdoors, though not anymore. But improvements in growing techniques have led to a dramatic decline in quality of a life in the high desert, where these illegal operations have taken hold and multiplied.
The aerial view of the high desert is astounding.
“Right here you got one there, one there, one there and here, here, here, and here. You can't throw a baseball without hitting one,” said Sgt. Jon Anderson, pilot with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department.
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The helicopter flew over a brazen display of greenhouse after greenhouse, which law enforcement describe as marijuana operations big and small, dotting the desert land of San Bernardino and LA counties.
“I mean it’s like a form of land looting,” said Assemblymember Tom Lackey, (R) 36th District. He and Assemblymember Thurston “Smitty” Smith, (R) 33rd District, are determined to crack down on what they see as a crisis.
The San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department invited the I-team to tour the region with them by helicopter. Assemblymember Smith pointed out the devastation visible from the air.
“Right here, you can see where they graded all the dirt to build a berm around it,” he explained. “Literally hundreds of them are popping up all over the place,” said Assemblymember Lackey. “It's an environmental threat, it's also a threat to the legitimate business of cannabis.”
And there is a growing concern about the consequences of Proposition 64 which legalized pot in California, but also downgraded cultivation from a felony to a misdemeanor, essentially making it no different to have six plants or a thousand.
“Six, a thousand, a million. It's all the same,” said Lt. Marc Bracco, with the Gangs/Narcotics Division of the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department. “It's just a misdemeanor in California and the fines are minimal.”
In the six other western states that have legalized recreational marijuana, illegal cultivation remains a felony with serious fines and jail time. Lt. Bracco suspects growers from other states are now coming to California as a result.
“They have no due regard for the community,” he explained. “They don't care about the safety of the neighborhood; they don’t care about the well-being of the environment. A lot of human fecal matter is found at these grow sites next to the chemicals buried in the ground. Trailers are left there, and nobody cares about cleaning it up.”
“All of that junk and trash and waste, it all affects the environment and folks that live there,” said San Bernardino County District Attorney Jason Anderson. He’s getting creative with the county’s marijuana task force, looking beyond criminal penalties to try to get a handle on the problem.
“So what we're trying to do is re-task a little bit in terms of environmental law, consumer protection laws, unfair competition laws,” Anderson explained. “To try to add a civil approach component to be able to go after all the parties much harder.” But right now, it's like the Wild West out there.
“They're taking the water, illegally drilling water wells,” said Assemblymember Smith.
The wells are visible from the air, along with trucks carting thousands of gallons of water, which investigators say could be stolen from hydrants. Open chemical pits and mounds of trash are also endangering the communities in the high desert.
A concerned neighbor in Lucerne Valley, who asked us not to use his name because of the growing danger, said it’s getting worse every day.
“There are shootings, accidents from illegal water hauling, trailers that are not licensed, drivers that are not licensed,” he said. “One of our neighbors got shot at only because they were picking up trash on their property that came from an illegal grow.”
On June 8th, the LA County Sheriff's Department bulldozed a massive illegal grow in the Antelope Valley, but there are an estimated 500 to go in LA county, and San Bernardino County is looking at a staggering 860 search warrants that need to be issued and executed.
Meanwhile, the number of illegal operations continues to grow.
“Tomorrow you might have an additional five or six,” said the Lucerne Valley neighbor. “These greenhouses go up every night.”
Those participating in the illegal operations are using precious resources, poisoning the land and turning the high desert into a wasteland.
Concerned residents and law enforcement want to see changes made to Proposition 64, making illegal cultivation once again a felony in this state. But any new legislation won’t be heard in Sacramento until January, unless the governor declares a state of emergency.
Law enforcement, lawmakers and prosecutors say cleaning this up will likely be a multi-year process.