Merced County sheriff’s deputies seized more than 800 marijuana plants Wednesday from a home on Beachwood Drive, directly across the street from a busy school bus stop.
Deputy Ray Framstad said the people growing the marijuana were not arrested because of their ages and medical conditions.
However, deputies plan to seek felony cultivation and sales charges through the Merced County District Attorney’s Office against Pan Unyen, 65, of St. Louis; Khamphoui Phomma Souk, 55, of Bakersfield; and Vinny Vieng Phothisen, 54, of San Diego.
All three were staying at the home in the 2600 block of Beachwood Drive.
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“This was a multifaceted, multimillion-dollar trafficking operation totally consistent with organized crime cartels,” Framstad said.
Detectives Darin Amis and Aaron McKnight spotted the growing operation last week while patrolling in a helicopter, the Sheriff’s Department said.
Deputies seized 814 plants in various stages of development from the backyard, mostly inside a large, homemade greenhouse.
Investigators also found evidence of a large-scale “processing room” allegedly used to clip marijuana buds and prepare parts of the plants to manufacture concentrated cannabis, sometimes referred to as “honey oil.”
Framstad estimated the street value of the grow between $1.8 million and $2 million.
“Harvesting twice a year, that’s a $4 million operation annually,” he said.
Souk and Phothisen denied selling any marijuana.
“It’s all for the medicine,” Souk told the Sun-Star. “I make it into tea for myself.”
Phothisen said he suffers from muscle and nerve damage and said all of the plants at the home were for their personal use. Souk and Phothisen described themselves as “husband and wife,” but said they were not legally married. Both denied any knowledge of drug trafficking.
Deputies found medical marijuana recommendations, saying a doctor approved 99 plants for each person at the home.
“They’re obviously way over that limit,” Framstad said. “And the new county ordinance only allows for 12 plants per parcel of land.”
Deputies allowed the residents to keep 12 plants, but destroyed the rest.
Two neighbors, who asked not to be identified, said they were happy that deputies cleared away the plants. They said they were aware of the grow, but believed the residents had the county’s permission to operate.
One neighbor said she did not see an unusual number of people coming and going from the house typically, though several people were seen at the house around late October or early November during a harvest.
One man said the strong odor made it difficult for asthma sufferers in his family. “I’m glad they (deputies) did this.”