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.

Asaf Shalev is a staff writer at the Monterey County Weekly. He covers the environment, agriculture and K-12 education, as well as Seaside, Marina, Sand City, Big Sur and Carmel Valley.

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(2) comments

Sinbad Sailor

On 11/12/2019 NPR KQED did an informative expose of the serious environmental damage of illegal grows and the links to drug cartels titled "Illegal Pot Operations In Public Forests Are Poisoning Wildlife And Water." Everyone should read the transcript!

"The true crime here is the fact that they're killing off basically America's public lands, killing off the wildlife, killing off our water," says Kevin Mayer, a U.S. Forest Service law enforcement assistant special agent in charge. "This is stuff that, you know, it's not gonna repair itself."

The feds and the state should assign much much more $$$$ and manpower to shut down these criminal operations not just on private property but also on public lands. The grows pose a significant public health and safety and ecological threat. The chemicals used - Bromethalin, which is a neurotoxin rodenticide, and Carbofuran, an incredibly toxic insecticide which is banned in the USA but not in Mexico - get into the soil, into the water through runoff, and into the marijuana plants themselves.

Despite legalization or marijuana in 11 states and the District of Columbia, there's a thriving black market for pot. Drug cartels see illegal grows as a way to make fast cash. One of the reasons for decriminalizing cannabis use and regulating legal pot shops was to drive out the illegal cartel grows. But instead, Prop 64 has increased the number of cannabis users and illegal cartel grows have thrived as a result. Who didn't see this coming? SMH.

John Thomas

There are a few reasons we still have a problem with black-market marijuana.

One is, there are still 39 states that continue to persecute their citizens who prefer near harmless marijuana over addictive, very harmful alcohol. - Most of the illegally grown marijuana in California goes to fill that demand.

Second, most California counties have prohibited marijuana sales. Frankly, we should not have allowed them to do that. At the very least, if some town councils or county commissions want to ban marijuana stores, they should have to have a special election and let the people decide. Clearly, most of these counties would then have marijuana stores.

Finally, both taxes and the selling price of marijuana are artificially, outrageously high. - Professional growers admit it costs about six dollars an ounce to produce sun-grown marijuana. - On a recent trip to Oregon, you could easily find $50 ounces almost everywhere.

After the dust settles on re-legalization, average quality marijuana will sell for $25 to $40 an ounce and will be sold wherever more harmful beer and wine are available. - Then there will be no room for the black-market to operate.

Californians love their legal marijuana stores - just like the consumers in the other re-legalized states.

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