On the morning of Sept. 30, a convoy of trucks bearing the insignias of the Monterey County Sheriff’s Office and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife barreled through Carmel Valley. The trucks went up Tassajara Road, reaching a property located on Laurel Springs Road. The deputies and wardens had arrived to serve a search warrant.
Deep in Cachagua, at the edge of Los Padres National Forest, the officers found an illegal cannabis operation. “Numerous firearms were seized,” says Cmdr. Derrel Simpson, a spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Office. The operation also resulted in the seizure of some 1,500 cannabis plants. Six people were questioned but no arrests have yet been made, according to Simpson: “It’s a fluid situation, and they are investigating.”
Det. Sgt. David Vargas, who heads the cannabis enforcement unit at the Sheriff’s Office, says that each plant produces between one and five pounds of cannabis buds, and that each pound fetches about $1,000. This estimate puts the total value of the bust at $1.5 million or more.
Since Vargas took over the cannabis unit in March, he has overseen about one to two raids a week. His team has seized more than 31,000 plants and 3,500 pounds of processed cannabis for a total value of at least $34.5 million.
“We are just scratching the surface,” Vargas adds. “Maybe we are hitting 10 to 20 percent of the illegal market.”
Cannabis enforcement has garnered heightened public interest following a high-profile arrest in Big Sur in August. Ivan Gomez, the alleged arsonist responsible for starting the Dolan Fire, is also suspected of a connection to illegal cannabis grow that was situated near the fire’s origin and was consumed by the blaze.
Often, these types of sites, located deep in the forest, are slow to be targeted. “Ninety-five percent of the cases are on private land. On the public land side, we could be just as busy but we have to triage,” Vargas says, noting that only two detectives work all illegal cannabis cases in the county.