How Uninhabited Terrain Became a Hotbed for Black Market Marijuana

How Uninhabited Terrain Became a Hotbed for Black Market Marijuana
(Illustration by The Epoch Times, Getty Images, Public Domain, John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)
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SISKIYOU COUNTY, Calif.—The air is thick with the unmistakable pungent stench of cannabis plants in a massive network of illegal grow operations in a rural part of northern California, as Mount Shasta looms on the horizon.

Gated off with chain link and wire fences—some with tattered shreds of privacy screening—the properties northeast of Weed, Calif., near Montague, are a compound of ramshackle huts, old RVs, and cheaply made greenhouses of hoops and plastic.

Several spotters in vehicles patrol the dusty roads, watching for police and intruders near the site off Shasta Vista Drive.

These “guards” are often armed with automatic rifles, according to Siskiyou County Sheriff Jeremiah LaRue.

The sheriff estimates that about 90 percent of the nearly 2,000 properties in the Mount Shasta Vista subdivision are involved in illegal grow operations.

Miles from Interstate 5, the illegal grow operations are out of sight and out of mind for most people, but even a glance at a satellite map reveals the vast network.

“If you zoom out, that subdivision is pretty large—nine square miles,” Mr. LaRue said.

The lots are on volcanic soil. Unsuitable for water wells and septic systems, the land is far from an ideal spot to build a “dream home,” he said.

The once essentially uninhabited terrain is now scattered with makeshift shelters and other structures built without permits in camps that look like they belong “in a third-world country,” according to Mr. LaRue.

The illegal cannabis operations have brought serious crime, including robberies, theft, and five unsolved homicides, he said.

A recent armed robbery allegedly involved outsiders robbing people who were selling marijuana, Mr. LaRue said.

“That doesn’t happen, generally speaking, to people that are growing alfalfa or cherries, or strawberries or corn. So it’s a crop that really brings just a massive amount of violent crime with it,” he said. “People are willing to die for marijuana for some reason.”

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Hundreds of illegal marijuana grow operations are located outside of Montague, Calif., on May 7, 2024. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

Legalizing Marijuana

More than 57 percent of California voters approved Proposition 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, in 2016, which legalized the recreational use of marijuana.

Californians have led the push to soften cannabis laws in the United States since 1972 with Proposition 9, a failed ballot initiative that attempted to legalize marijuana. Eventually, in 1996, more than 55 percent of state voters supported Proposition 215, allowing the medical use of cannabis.

But unlicensed cannabis cultivation and sales are prohibited, and cultivation is still illegal under federal law.

About nine years ago, a group of about 100 people moved from the Midwest and bought private property in Siskiyou County, where they started cultivating outdoor marijuana grows, according to Mr. LaRue.

The land was cheap then; 2.5-acre parcels sold for about $500, but today the same land is worth between $30,000 and $40,000 because illegal grow operations are lucrative and the sites are in high demand, he said.

Mr. LaRue estimated that there are currently about 10,000 people involved in illegal cannabis cultivation.

Nearly 5,000 “hoop houses,” a term the sheriff prefers to describe the makeshift greenhouses, cultivating three crops per year means the black market sites generate billions of dollars in profits, he said.

Property owners have brought in illegal pesticides and other toxic chemicals, many from China, that are “destroying the environment,” Mr. LaRue said.

His deputies do the best they can to avoid contamination from unregulated and illegal pesticides found during routine raids, but he said he worries about the risks of long-term exposure to such toxins.

Recent traffic stops show that illegal cannabis is going to licensed locations and that the legal market is also being supplied by the black market, according to Mr. LaRue.

“Everything has kind of turned into what I call the gray market because everything is just dirty,” he said. “You really don’t know what’s legit and what isn’t ... and the average user has no clue.”

This makes the illegal pesticide issue even more alarming because “those chemicals are now on the product that’s going into legal dispensaries,” Mr. LaRue said.

“People are buying it as medicine for cancer patients and actually just smoking and consuming carcinogens,“ he said. ”That should be troubling for the state. That’s a public health issue.”

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Marijuana is weighed on a scale at Virgil Grant's dispensary in Los Angeles on Feb. 8, 2018. In California, it is a felony to plant, cultivate, harvest, dry, or process more than six cannabis plants “to intentionally or with gross negligence cause substantial environmental harm to surface or groundwater,” according to the California Department of Cannabis Control. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)

Penalties for Illegal Cultivation

Proposition 64, or the Adult Use Marijuana Act, which took effect in November 2016, allowed adults older than 21 to legally grow and harvest up to six plants.

Under California law, it is a felony “to intentionally or with gross negligence cause substantial environmental harm to surface or groundwater” as a result of planting, cultivating, harvesting, drying, or processing more than six cannabis plants, the California Department of Cannabis Control (DCC) said in a statement emailed to The Epoch Times.

Anyone aged 18 or older convicted of planting, cultivating, harvesting, drying, or processing more than six living cannabis plants can face misdemeanor charges and up to six months in a county jail or a fine of up to $500, or both, under Article 11358 of the California Health and Safety Code.
Penalties for anyone younger than age 18 include up to eight hours of drug counseling, up to 40 hours of community service, or both, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

The DCC did not provide any statistics indicating how many people, if any, have been convicted and sentenced to jail time and stipulated that the prosecution of such crimes “is dependent on the jurisdiction where they occurred.”

In practice, for illegal cultivation to be prosecuted as a felony, the crime is usually tied to an environmental infraction, Siskiyou County District Attorney Kirk Andrus told The Epoch Times.

“It’s a misdemeanor all day long no matter how much you grow unless you have an environmental violation, and so that takes us some work to prove,” Mr. Andrus said.

The state is losing tax revenue, and some people who entered the legal cannabis market thinking they could make a profit are going out of business, he said.

“If they want to make marijuana legal for recreational use, then defend the white market. The black market is killing the white market,” Mr. Andrus said.

“We have a black market in this county that’s the size of a small nation. I’m not a marijuana proponent, but if it’s going to be legal, defend your market by letting us eradicate the black market.”

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A worker removes leaves from marijuana plants to allow more light for growth at Essence Vegas's 54,000-square-foot marijuana cultivation facility in Las Vegas on July 6, 2017. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Potential Remedies and Solutions

Mr. LaRue admits that there’s no quick fix for the crisis, but he has urged the governor to take executive action to “free up money” for rural communities where police funding often falls short and implement more “aggressive” enforcement policies.

Funding for six deputies to cover nearly 6,300 square miles and only two to deal with illegal grow operations just isn’t enough, he said.

Mr. LaRue urged state lawmakers to take a closer look at what’s happening in Siskiyou County.

“They need to look at it as an actual problem and get some laws on the books that would actually deter people from continuing this,” he said, stressing that his intent—and the purpose of tougher laws—is “not to lock everyone up in prison.”

The usual $500 fine for cultivating illegal cannabis is now considered a routine expense by the illegal grow operators who are often back in business within days of police raids, according to Mr. LaRue.

The sheriff said penalties for illegal cultivation should reflect the severity of the crime and the overall effect on people and communities.

“What we’re seeing is not just simple cultivation. It’s bundled with the violence and ... environmental damage,” he said. “It needs to be looked at holistically. The crime is just a complete disaster when we look at it that way.”

Government Response

Mr. LaRue said he met with California Gov. Gavin Newsom once but was not able to talk with him at length about the problem with illegal grow operations in his county.

“He’s aware of it, and I’ve talked to his staff quite a bit,” Mr. LaRue said. “It’s a political football.”

Attorney General Rob Bonta’s office also knows about the situation, as do several state agencies, including the DCC, he said.

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Plants in an illegal cannabis greenhouse are destroyed by law enforcement during a raid by the San Bernardino County Sheriffs Department, in Newberry Springs, Calif., on March 29, 2024. (Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images)

“Everybody in those departments, honestly, is frustrated,” Mr. LaRue said. “They do want to help me, but they don’t have the tools due to the legislation.”

He said the California State Sheriffs’ Association has been supportive of his efforts, and the organization has pushed for “better laws,” but no state lawmakers have sponsored a bill that would make any significant changes in the way of cannabis law reform, he said.

Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Calif.), who also represents the region, said the criminals behind the illegal grow operations constantly change the names of the landowners through title companies, making it difficult for law enforcement to find out who is behind them.

The congressman said he’s surprised the state isn’t more concerned about the lost tax revenue and the effect illegal grows have had on the legal cannabis industry, aside from environmental violations and the increase in crime.

“They’re bringing chemicals from out of the country that are illegal, that don’t have a label to use on any [agricultural] product here—blatantly using them and dumping them out—and the containers are laying all over the place at the sites,” he said.

According to the DCC, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control investigates the use of illegal chemicals or pesticides in illicit operations.

Mr. LaMalfa agreed that the $500 fines aren’t enough.

“It is the cost of doing business because if they can make money hand-over-fist and they run into a problem once in a while, it’s not a big deal,” he said.

The Department of Justice has been reluctant to bust illegal marijuana grow operation sites, leaving local law enforcement efforts “somewhat paralyzed,” he said.

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People stand in line to get into MedMen, one of the two Los Angeles area pot shops that began selling marijuana for recreational use under the new California law, in West Hollywood, Calif., on Jan. 2, 2018. (David McNew/Getty Images)

Cannabis Control Efforts

The DCC said in the statement that the Unified Cannabis Enforcement Task Force, composed of more than two dozen local, state, and federal partners, is working “to disrupt the illegal cannabis market.”

The task force, formed in 2022 to “protect consumers and public safety, safeguard the environment, and deprive illegal cannabis operators and transnational criminal organizations of illicit revenue that harms consumers and undercuts the regulated cannabis market in California,” investigates the crime syndicates behind the ownership and operation of illegal cannabis sites, according to the DCC.

Last year in Siskiyou County, the task force seized 42,878 pounds of illegal cannabis valued at more than $70 million, destroyed 69,772 illegal plants, and confiscated 12 firearms. Last summer, it served 24 search warrants and raided illegal grow operations in the Whitney Creek, Harry Cash, and Shasta Vistas areas, according to the DCC.

So far, the task force has confiscated more than 140 firearms at illicit cannabis sites statewide and is investigating links to human trafficking, illegal retail outlets, and the distribution of fentanyl, according to the statement.

On Nov. 15, 2023, the DCC’s law enforcement division assisted the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Department with its investigation by serving two search warrants on unlicensed dispensaries in Los Angeles. The operations seized almost $2.5 million in illegal cannabis.

In 2023, the task force seized about 190,000 pounds of illegal cannabis, worth more than $312 million, and eradicated nearly 318,000 illegal cannabis plants across the state.

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Mr. LaRue said the task force spent one week in Siskiyou County last July and estimates that only about 5 percent to 8 percent of illegal weed is eradicated annually.

During the first quarter of this year, the Unified Cannabis Enforcement Task Force seized $53 million worth of unlicensed cannabis, eradicated more than 54,000 unlicensed cannabis plants, and seized nearly 32,000 pounds of unlicensed cannabis.

Mr. Newsom has enacted policies and provided funding to support legal cannabis operations and signed legislation to erase past cannabis convictions, combat discrimination against off-the-job cannabis use, and ensure statewide access to medicinal cannabis. He has also pushed for interstate cannabis markets.

The DCC stated that the Newsom administration has also delivered “historic tax relief” for legal cannabis operators, “particularly equity operators.”

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Roughly 5,000 greenhouses are being used to illegally cultivate marijuana in California's Siskiyou County, according to the county sheriff. (Courtesy of Siskiyou County Sheriff's Department)

To inform marijuana users how to identify the differences between illegal and legal cannabis retailers, the state started the Real California Cannabis campaign about “the benefits of purchasing legal cannabis,” according to the DCC.

Mr. Newsom’s and Mr. Bonta’s offices directed all inquiries to the DCC.

‘Narco Slavery’

The Siskiyou sheriff said he believes that the proliferation of black market grow operations has led to “narco slavery,” which is difficult to police, prosecute, and prove, he said.

Mr. LaRue said he suspects that the laborers, some who are illegal immigrants, are working off debts owed to cartels who helped transport them into the country. Some have had their lives threatened and have been told that if they don’t work at these camps, their families will be killed, he said.

Most were promised great jobs in a beautiful area where they can live, but then they’re often not paid, he said.

“These people have been duped,” Mr. LaRue said. “Either they’re afraid and they don’t want to talk to us, or they think the people that hired them are going to take care of them, and they’re sort of waiting. But oftentimes, they don’t get anything.”

These laborers live in “filthy” conditions, have little food or money, and don’t own vehicles, he said.

“We’ve seen some of the same people that are just going from grow to grow, and we’ll run into them at different locations that are cultivating,” Mr. LaRue said. “It’s really sad to see. We want to help those people, but they’re very reluctant to talk to us.”

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