Republican lawmakers are pursuing new policing tools in the High Desert and a rollback of California’s cannabis decriminalization as part of a crackdown they say will target illegal farms “in a way we never have” — including by enlisting federal agents, creating a multi-county “address database,” seizing property and wiretapping.
Federal, state and county officials spoke to an audience of around 250 people Tuesday night, Aug. 3, at a meeting hosted by the Lucerne Valley Economic Development Association in the local high school’s gymnasium. Included among the speakers were U.S. Rep. Jay Obernolte, 33rd District state Assemblyman Thurston “Smitty” Smith and state Sen. Shannon Grove, who was the Republican minority leader in her chamber until this year.
The meeting centered around illegal cannabis grows, which residents and law enforcement officials say are springing up at a rising rate in the High Desert with a specific concentration in communities like Lucerne Valley, Barstow and Hinkley.
Federal government’s potential role
Obernolte — the U.S. House of Representatives member for many in San Bernardino, Mono and Inyo counties — said he introduced an amendment to the federal budget that would shift an additional $25 million in taxpayer funds this year to the Drug Enforcement Administration “for the express purpose of aiding local law enforcement” in crackdowns on illegal cannabis.
“I’m trying very hard to loop in the DEA on this,” Obernolte told the Daily Press before the meeting. “I think they need to come in and enforce federal law.”
The DEA’s current budget this fiscal year is $3.2 billion, and it has asked Congress to raise that funding by 13% to $3.6 billion in the next fiscal year.
Obernolte said he wants the federal agency to increase its use of wiretapping in the High Desert, as local and county police are barred by civil-liberties protections from using the surveillance tool “unless they can tie it to a larger crime such as money-laundering.”
Aside from wiretapping, local police also can’t seize or destroy property it associates with illegal grows. Obernolte said he hopes for the DEA to take on that job, as well.
From felony to misdemeanor
These and other plans and proposals for new law-enforcement firepower in the region were accompanied with critiques of Proposition 64, which took effect in January 2018 after passing in a referendum on the November 2016 ballot.
Prop 64 lowered California’s penalty for illegal cultivation of six or more cannabis plants, which Republican officials and some community leaders say is the primary cause of the increase in black-market farms.
Previously a felony in all cases, illegal cultivation is now a misdemeanor in California that carries up to six months in jail and up to $500 in fines for most adults — though it still is a felony in some cases, including for repeat offenders, people with violent felonies on their record and growers who violate state environmental laws.
The meeting’s large turnout — relative to Lucerne Valley’s small-town population of just over 7,000 — is due in part to fears among High Desert residents that black-market cannabis cultivation is an existential threat to their communities. It’s long been a problem for a region of desert expense that’s ripe for such farms, they say, but it is one that has intensified in recent years.
Some residents describe feelings of intimidation — one member of the audience said he reported “being shot at” along a road in nearby Johnson Valley, but received insufficient follow-up from the sheriff and California Highway Patrol.
‘Not For Pot Farms!’
Yet, the most consistent complaint among locals is on the issue of water.
Multiple longtime Lucerne Valley residents have told the Daily Press that the level of water in their wells is lower than ever before. One Hinkley resident painted a similarly grim picture, saying her community already has water remediation issues that will take decades to fix. She said she worries what the added impact will be if the growing presence of illegal cannabis cultivation continues.
With the current drought and limited water sources in mind, law-enforcement officials say millions of gallons of water are being consumed daily in the High Desert to facilitate these black-market farms.
‘We make them aware of what’s going on’
San Bernardino County District Attorney Jason Anderson said his office plans to use civil and criminal mechanisms against not just those doing the growing, but also against landowners whose parcels of desert are being grown on — whether they know it or not.
Anderson said his office is putting together “an actual address database through the county and in other counties to figure out if there’s one landowner or somebody who owns different parcels of land” where cultivation occurs.
“Those situations, we clearly know that people know what’s going on in their land, and it makes it very easy for us to go after them both civilly and criminally,” he said.
Anderson added that the homeowner database is “a direction we’ve never had to use before.” He blamed Prop 64 for its implementation and said similar coercion will be directed at unaware landowners.
“If they do not know what’s going on in their property, then we make them aware of what’s going on. Then, all of a sudden, they become responsible as the property owner,” Anderson said. “We get somebody’s attention by grabbing them by the collar — and, really, grabbing them by the wallets — and saying, ‘Your biggest capital improvement is going to be at risk if you don’t do something.’”
The hope, he said, is that these landowners “will join us in fighting the criminal conduct that’s on their land.”
San Bernardino County’s new sheriff, Shannon Dicus, who took the helm from John McMahon on July 16, is “working on legislation to tackle the issues at the state-level” and “build pressure to try to rollback some of these rules,” Anderson said, referencing Prop 64’s reduction of penalties for illegal marijuana growth.
Upwards of 300 grows ‘that we don’t know about’
Marc Bracco, a lieutenant with the sheriff’s Special Operations Bureau, spoke on behalf of Dicus at the meeting.
Bracco, who is also a vice chairman with the California Narcotic Officers’ Association, suggested that there are “more than 200, 300” illegal grow sites “that we don’t know about.” He said the sheriff’s department is expanding from one team to five teams that are focusing on the grows, as well as the associated “water theft.”
Three of the teams have been implemented to this point, he said, adding that all five teams will be deployed in the next two to three weeks.
“I’m not publicly disclosing our deployment (plans), but Lucerne Valley, Barstow and Hinkley are going to be very satisfied with what we have coming toward their areas.”
Bracco said that “we did 300, or almost 400 search warrants in four months” across the High Desert as a result of “Operation Homegrown,” which began late last year. Nearly half of those warrants were served in Lucerne Valley through January, Sgt. Dana Weinberg at the local sheriff’s substation previously told the Daily Press.
Bracco said he hopes to have at least 600 search warrants over the first four-month period that the sheriff’s new teams are running.
He also said “we’re starting to see an uptick in carbofuran,” which is a highly toxic pesticide that has been disallowed for use on all crops grown for human consumption since 2009, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
‘I am not exaggerating’
Assemblyman Smith said he’s having a report compiled over the next six months regarding the environmental impact of chemicals being used at illegal grow sites in the High Desert.
He and others said common ground can be found with the Democratic Party on issues of the environment, immigration and human-trafficking as they relate to illegal cultivation.
Smith closed his speech by endorsing the effort to replace Gov. Gavin Newsom with a Republican in the Sept. 14 recall election, which served as an example of the occasionally partisan tone of Tuesday’s meeting.
One High Desert resident, who said she came from outside of Lucerne Valley, pushed back on the meeting’s political tinge, saying the presence of illegal grows is an urgent issue for residents “from all walks of life, all sides of the aisle” in the region.
“Stop talking about our differences. If over 200 of us can come together from hundreds of miles apart from each other and try and ask for action,” she said, “because I’ve got to tell you, the community I moved into 20 years ago is not going to be here by January, and I am not exaggerating.”
Charlie McGee covers the city of Barstow and its surrounding communities for the Daily Press. He is also a Report for America corps member with the GroundTruth Project, an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization dedicated to supporting the next generation of journalists in the U.S. and around the world. McGee may be reached at 760-955-5341 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @bycharliemcgee.