MERCED COUNTY — Marijuana production and related crimes kept the Merced County Sheriffs Department busy in 2013.
Weve seen substantial increases in every category, said Sgt. Kevin Blake, head of the Sheriffs Tactical and Reconnaissance Team.
This year, deputies eradicated a total of 77,143 illegal plants and seized more than 1,200 pounds of street-ready marijuana buds from both indoor and outdoor grows. Additionally, the STAR team arrested more than 30 people in connection with black-market plant production, sought criminal charges against dozens more and seized about 100 firearms from growers, ranging from automatic weapons to pistols, Blake said.
The central San Joaquin Valley is one of the hottest spots in the nation for illegal marijuana grows. Merced County in particular has become a popular spot for growers coming from other areas to set up. They came here because there was no ordinance, Blake said.
In September, the Merced County Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance limiting cultivation to 12 plants per land parcel, regardless of the propertys size. Supervisors hope illegal growers will view the legislation as a deterrent to large-scale operations.
Illegal growers are becoming bolder, many area sheriffs say, moving from historical hideouts in national forests to the Valley floor even planting marijuana near elementary schools.
A key reason for the shift is Californias medical marijuana law, which is being manipulated to earn illegal traffickers a hefty payday, officials say.
Growers often are shielded with doctor recommendations for medical marijuana and routinely grow up to 99 marijuana plants, since 100 plants or more can mean harsher penalties if prosecuted federally.
The system has been exploited to no end, Kings County Sheriff Dave Robinson said. These gang members get a medical marijuana card for a migraine headache.
The majority of marijuana growers stayed in the mountains until harsher crackdowns began in 2009, primarily in the Sequoia and Sierra national forests, Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims said.
But that led to a troubling development.
What the marijuana growers figured out was, by using the roots of Californias medical marijuana laws, they could grow on the Valley floor, post (medical marijuana) recommendations, and their feeling was it was completely legal, Mims said. Our main challenge now are the Valley floor grows.
Blake said growers have been moving out of the forests and into residential neighborhoods, hiding behind medical marijuana laws to protect their crops. Unfortunately, the medical marijuana laws are abused and taken advantage of, Blake said. We see large-scale grows that produce thousands of pounds of marijuana, which is not typically needed for medical purposes.
In an attempt to evade prosecutors who usually focus on the worst offenders many illegal growers group together a number of medical marijuana recommendations and produce 99 plants for each recommendation, officials said.
Californias Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Act, was passed by voters in 1996. Along with treating people with serious illnesses, it states doctors can provide a medical marijuana recommendation for any other illness for which marijuana provides relief.
However, there are restrictions in the (state) law, Mims said. Theres a way for it to be legal, but people think its just a free-for-all, and its not.
U.S. Attorney Ben Wagner, whose district covers 34 counties, including Merced, Stanislaus and Fresno, said his district is No. 1 in the nation for domestically produced marijuana.
On the federal side, we see a lot of cases out of Fresno County in which people purport to grow for medical purposes, but in fact (their crops) are shipped to other states for profit, Wagner said.
The same is true in Merced County.
Its grown here and taken to the East Coast, where prices can triple, Blake said.
The dangers inherent with marijuana trafficking are real.
The violence associated with these grows is the most concerning aspect for us, Blake said. We have had murders, robberies, kidnappings and home invasions with direct links to cartels.
Two Mexican citizens were shot and killed execution style Nov. 23 outside Delhi. Sheriff Mark Pazin said both were in the United States illegally and were part of a sophisticated marijuana-growing operation with suspected links to a powerful Mexican drug cartel.
In Congress, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein has pushed for increased dollars for investigation and enforcement.
Feinstein helped lobby for a federal boost earlier this month: $400,000 for a special Central Valley program headed by Mims made up of many local, state and federal agencies in the Central Valley.
The senator said another way to combat drug traffickers is by prosecuting environmental violations, such as illegal use of pesticides.
Feinstein also is asking the federal departments of Justice and Agriculture to start a public information campaign to educate farmers on how to protect themselves from illegal marijuana grows, often hidden among crops on their land.
But even with proposed changes, some sheriffs dont see the Valley pot predicament improving anytime soon.
The last three or four years is where the boom has really happened, Madera County Sheriff John Anderson said. Its just going to get worse.
Reporter Rob Parsons can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 385-2482.