Merced County Sheriff's deputies and others busted a 20-acre, marijuana-growing operation Thursday at a 1303 Gurr Road property south of Atwater -- the largest county pot bust this year, authorities said.
Law enforcement served a federal search warrant at the property around 7 a.m., detaining 19 people and finding more than 10,000 plants, according to Sheriff Mark Pazin.
No weapons were found at the site.
Pazin didn't have a specific dollar amount for the seized marijuana, although he said the plants are worth about $2,500 to $3,000 each. He said the group had been living in sheds and tents on the property with no sanitation while tending the plants.
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Deputies and agents hauled away truckloads of the pungent plants throughout the afternoon, as detectives questioned those found at the property.
Pazin said the property was rented out to the group, and it's still under investigation how much the property owner knew about the operation or whether he'll face charges.
The cases will probably be handled in federal court because of the massive size of the operation, Pazin said. He added the people involved in the operation tried to validate it with a doctor's signature taken off the Internet.
Although medical marijuana is legal in California under Prop. 215, Pazin pointed out it's still illegal under federal law. Pazin said the motive behind the grow is greed.
"What this group of Southeast Asians did was basically hide behind Proposition 215 to go ahead and grow 20 acres of marijuana for the purposes of financial and monetary gain," Pazin said.
Residents in the rural area said they noticed people at the property gardening day and night. Pazin said anonymous tips led to the bust. "We've been smelling it for over a month now," said one resident.
By Thursday afternoon, Pazin said agents had already taken away more than eight truck loads of marijuana. "And we are barely halfway done," he said. "So explain to me how many persons are in need of this 'medicine,' which I don't advocate."
In Merced County, under Prop. 215, a patient with a medical marijuana card is allowed to own six mature plants and 12 immature plants, in addition to a half-pound of finished product.
Pazin said the U.S. attorney's office in Fresno will determine whether the property owner and the 19 people who were detained face charged.
The federal Drug Enforcement Agency, Merced Multi-Agency Narcotics Task Force, Merced Multi-Agency Gang Task Force, Department of Justice, STAR Team and High Intensity Drug-Trafficking Area (HIDTA) Task Force were all involved in the operation.
City Editor Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.