The sheriff of Siskiyou County, California, has been trying to crack down on illegal cannabis grows for seven years, but the problem continues to persist with no end in sight.
After the state legalized marijuana, illegal grows began to pop up across the county, threatening the local environment, its citizens and the workers it often traffickers. The county sheriff, Jeremiah LaRue, told the Daily Caller News Foundation that the source of the issue has been California’s laws; the state legalized cannabis for recreational use and cultivation of marijuana in 2016, and became a sanctuary for illegal immigrants in 2018, limiting local law enforcement’s abilities to communicate with federal immigration authorities.
With legalization came the elimination of some criminal penalties and reduction of punishments.
“There’s just not a lot that can be done. It’s quite embarrassing, really,” LaRue told the DCNF.
Anyone who is 21 years and older can grow up to six marijuana plants per household so long as they are out of public view, according to California law. In order to operate, one must obtain a cultivation license through the state, which requires that a grower adhere to regulations on the use of pesticides, generators, electricity and water.
Growing more than the allowed six marijuana plants as an adult in California is considered a misdemeanor that could be punishable by up to six months in prison and/or up to a $500 fine. The offense was previously considered a felony.
“The difficulty is the laws that have been established, they’re mainly administrative penalties. A lot of these state agencies have not been given additional people to assist with this. And so the problem is so massive, and there’s not enough people,” Larue told the DCNF.
When his office is able to bust one grow, they find that growers are able to replant marijuana crops within 24 hours.
LaRue has requested additional personnel and resources from the state, but his calls for help have fallen on deaf ears, he said.
The state’s sanctuary status has limited LaRue’s ability to communicate with federal immigration authorities, making it illegal for local law enforcement to assist Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in attempting to tackle the issue alone as an undermanned rural county sheriff.
“We can’t contact them just to try to see what’s going on with this person because they’re undocumented and what-not. If we have federal agencies working with us, they can reach out, but oftentimes we’ve don’t, there’s not a lot of resources,” LaRue said, calling the sanctuary law “a big mistake.”
“We want to help people no matter who they are, but we can’t break through that and the state of California it really enables that,” LaRue said.
Siskiyou County is situated in Republican California Rep. Doug LaMalfa’s district, which he says is now partially at the mercy of marijuana cartels.
“The infiltration of cartel-controlled illegal marijuana grows in Siskiyou County has led to increased criminal activity, danger of retaliation to nearby residents, outdoor enthusiasts, and law enforcement, as well as severe environmental degradation,” LaMalfa told the DCNF.
“Ultimately, when California Democrats legalized cannabis to curb rising rates of crime and illegal drug proliferation, they only added fuel to the fire – now, individuals and massive cartel operations can grow seven or seven thousand plants and only receive a slap-on-the-wrist misdemeanor,” LaMalfa said.
The black market industry stems from the crisis at the southern border, where federal authorities have recorded more than four million encounters of migrants crossing into the country illegally between fiscal year 2022 and 2023, LaMalfa said.
Both illegal and legal immigrants, with many hailing from China, are present on the grow sites, according to LaRue.
“Federal open-border policies have allowed cartel members to freely infiltrate our country, bring in banned chemicals, illegal weapons, and trafficking people for forced labor in their grows. I have introduced federal legislation to give resources to law enforcement to eradicate illegal marijuana grows on public lands, increase fines and penalties for such cultivation and establish a fund to restore land damaged by that activity, and I would support increased penalties and law enforcement support for illegal private land grows as well,” LaMalfa said.
Immigrants, both legal and illegal, working in the illicit pot industry are often victims of human trafficking, Dagoberto Morales, director of UNETE, an Oregon-based group that advocates for farmworkers, told the DCNF.
“The workers come from different places, from Chile, Argentina, Spain. They landed in Miami and in Miami they find someone and they sent them to the Northern California or the Southern Oregon,” Morales said.
In speaking with some victims, Morales learned of a case in which immigrant workers were offered $300,000 for six months of work on the grow sites run by criminal organizations from Latin America, China, Russia and Israel. They were never paid.
There’s been a lack of attention paid by federal prosecutors to tackle the grow operations in his area, LaRue said.
If the federal government pursued the issue through prosecution, it would have a massive chilling effect on the illegal cannabis industry, according to John Nores, who retired in 2018 from his post as a special operations lieutenant California Department of Fish and Wildlife, where he led the Marijuana Enforcement Team (MET).
“I would be shocked if there were any serious federal cases going on, say in Siskiyou County, because we need some deterrence if we went after some folks federally to not only seize assets but got severe penalties for incarceration. And that hasn’t happened to any level that I know of,” Nores told the DCNF.
With the illegal cannabis industry continuing to boom seven years since the legalization of marijuana, Nores fears the issue will only continue to worsen in California, where it’s causing environmental damage and threatening public safety.
“It is not getting any better. And right now myself and other people in the world have been trying to educate as much as possible to look at this thing from not only a public safety standpoint on these cartel threats, but also environmental impact,” Nores said, adding that the illegal industry uses toxic pesticides, intimidates the public with aggressive dogs and threatens neighbors for access to the rural water supply during droughts.
“This is infuriating to see what continues to happen because of bad legislation and bad laws. And then bad policy from the standpoint of sanctuary state,” Nores said.
While the cartels continue to expand, the local community is being driven out as the illegal grow operations take over Homeowners Associations and cause deaths in the area, according to a previous Siskiyou County Civil Grand Jury report.
But until legislation changes, the cartels know that they are largely free to operate in California, according to LaRue.
“In California, our biggest problem is just the terrible local state laws that were passed because we can’t even get a control on it at all. I mean, there’s no penalties. There’s no way to deter people. And so that’s why it’s just become so prevalent here,” LaRue said.
The California Office of Cannabis Control said the state has created a task force to combat the grows. In Siskiyou County, the task force served 24 search warrants on unlicensed commercial grows July 11-13, eradicating 67,045 illegal cannabis plants, seizing 8,019.75 pounds of illegal processed cannabis worth an estimated $68.5 million and confiscating a dozen firearms, the office told the DCNF.
Additionally, on Nov. 15, the office assisted the Siskiyou County sheriff by serving two search warrants on unlicensed dispensaries in Los Angeles, seizing almost $2.5M in illegal cannabis and cannabis products, the office said.
“In October 2022, Governor Newsom created the Unified Cannabis Enforcement Taskforce (UCETF) – a multi-agency, cross-jurisdictional taskforce of enforcement agencies designed to better coordinate agencies combatting illegal cannabis operations and transnational criminal organizations. During the first three quarters of 2023, UCETF has seized over $260M of illegal cannabis and cannabis products throughout California,” the office said.
Jennie Taer on December 25, 2023