Los Angeles police have made the largest illegal marijuana seizure in the county’s history, netting 373,000 plants that would ultimately have been worth about $US1.2 billion ($1.6 billion) on the street.
- Armed cartel members run massive illegal grows, some spanning dozens of greenhouses
- Police made 131 arrests and seized nearly 15 tonnes of harvested marijuana plants
- The number of illegal grows identified in the Antelope Valley has more than tripled since last year
But the record bust eradicated only a fraction of the illicit “grows” in the Southern California high desert.
The problem is wide-ranging in the Antelope Valley north of Los Angeles, officials said, and has grown substantially during the coronavirus pandemic.
California assemblyman Tom Lackey said the weed was threatening the environment, public health and public safety.
“What we have, ladies and gentlemen, is an illicit weed-demic,” he said.
Armed cartel members run massive illegal grows, some spanning dozens of greenhouses, that compete with the state’s legal marijuana industry.
Multiple law enforcement agencies carried out a 10-day operation in the Antelope Valley last month that resulted in 131 arrests and the seizure of nearly 15 tonnes of harvested marijuana plants with a street value of $US1.2 billion.
Yet the undertaking only demolished 205 illegal grows out of the 500 seen by aerial surveillance in the area.
Last year, Sheriff Alex Villanueva said only 150 illegal grows were identified in the Antelope Valley.
Scores more exist in other nearby counties.
The cartel members threaten residents and steal millions of gallons of water amid a severe drought, Sheriff Villanueva said.
“Los Angeles County has seen a significant proliferation of illegal outdoor marijuana grows, especially in the Antelope Valley,” he said.
“Many of these grows have been directly tied to Mexican drug trafficking organisations and Asian and Armenian organised crime groups.”
Eric Lindberg, senior chief geologist with the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board, said the growing operations poisoned streams and groundwater with harmful pesticides and harmed wildlife and plants.
“Unregulated cannabis cultivation operations often allow fertilisers, pesticides, petroleum fuels, sediment, irrigation tail water, trash and human waste to be released into the environment and to pollute waters of the state,” he said.
But the black market is thriving, in part because hefty legal marijuana taxes send consumers looking for better deals.
Officials sought to differentiate between the Antelope Valley operation and the legal market.
“This is not a war on the legal cannabis business in California,” said the area’s congressional representative Mike Garcia.