Authorities said Wednesday that they seized $1 billion worth of illegal marijuana in the largest eradication effort in Los Angeles County history.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva showed photos of the sprawling operation at a morning news conference to discuss details of a recent 10-day operation that seized 373,000 marijuana plants and 33,480 pounds of harvested pot with an estimated street value of nearly $1.2 billion.
Federal, state and local officials were also scheduled to attend the news conference, including Rex Parris, mayor of Lancaster in the Antelope Valley north of Los Angeles.
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The Mojave Desert area is where authorities last month launched a massive raid on what they said were illegal marijuana farms believed to be connected to drug cartels.
That operation led to 23 arrests and the seizure of millions of dollars' worth of pot in what was described as the largest such operation in the sheriff's department history. One operation had more than 70 greenhouses and the crop's street value was estimated at $50 million.
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At the time, Villanueva said about 150 illegal marijuana growing areas were identified in the Antelope Valley area last year but some 500 were already found this year.
On Tuesday, Rep. Mike Garcia, who represents the area, said he saw many illegal greenhouses by helicopter.
“I saw hundreds, if not thousands, of these illegal nurseries throughout our desert being manned by primarily illegal immigrants,” Garcia said. “Over 90% of the folks working these farms are indentured servants of some form. They’re stealing our water, in many cases they’re squatting on our land.”
“I want to be very clear that these are not mom and pop or legal operations that we are fighting,” he said. “These are large-scale illegal operations in many cases being run by several different cartels right here in our backyard.”
California broadly legalized recreational marijuana sales in January 2018. But the black market is thriving, in part because hefty legal marijuana taxes send consumers looking for better deals.
Tons of marijuana have been discovered in law enforcement raids this year in rural Southern California areas.
Authorities say the grows in remote areas can harm the environment by using banned pesticides and hazardous chemicals that can pollute streams and ground water supplies.
Growers also steal millions of gallons of water with illegal wells or by taking it under cover of night from wells maintained by local alfalfa, potato and carrot farmers, authorities said.