Merced County Sheriff’s deputies cleared out a “commercial grow” of more than 600 marijuana plants on Friday, where the growers used large amounts of fertilizer, pesticides and other chemicals.
Sgt. Ray Framstad said cultivation sites like the one found in the 9700 block of South Highway 59 in El Nido damage the soil because of the chemicals used.
“We have chemicals that we have no idea what they are,” he told the Sun-Star.
The growers use the chemicals, which also include acids and rodent poison, in the area of the plants they are growing outside to improve the quality of the buds, according to Framstad. Plants grown outside are typically considered lower quality than those cultivated indoors, he said.
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The bust comes as the county weighs changing its ordinance on cultivation.
The Merced County planning commission meets Wednesday to discuss the county’s plan to ban the growth of 12 plants outdoors, which has been legal since 2013. The ordinance would allow only the six plants grown indoors, which is the state standard.
The sheriff’s office will be part of the presentation at the meeting, according to Framstad, who said moving growing indoors would be best. Cannabis advocates say indoor growing is more expensive and a burden on the most vulnerable.
A starter kit to grow six plants inside would cost about $1,000, according to James Lex Bufford, owner of Strawberry Alarm Clock in Merced. To grow indoors takes lights, an exhaust system and other equipment, some of which come with significant energy costs.
Without the right set-up, the humidity can damage walls or cause mold to grow, he said.
“Sunshine’s free,” he said. “Growing outside is easier. You might have some things you want to worry about (outside), but some of the pests on pot get inside too.”
The sheriff’s office disagrees, saying the starter kit would be about half as expensive as Bufford’s estimate.
Advocates for medical cannabis often argue that marijuana plants are a natural alternative to other prescribed medicines. Framstad pushed back against that notion, pointing to the chemicals used by irresponsible growers.
Merced County Sheriff Vern Warnke has taken a hard line against marijuana growth of any kind, saying it draws violence to cultivation sites and is bad for the environment.
“The people growing this are absolutely polluting our groundwater,” Warnke said Friday. “The environmental impacts are bad. The criminal impacts are worse.”
The sheriff’s office credits the drop in violence in Merced County in recent years to its daily effort to eradicate illegal outdoor cultivation. Framstad pointed to recent violence in other counties.
A week ago, armed suspects in Calaveras County posing as law enforcement officials stole about 500 marijuana plants, a large amount of cash and a pickup, tying up some of the victims they robbed. The previous week, a teen and a man were found dead at a cultivation site in San Joaquin County, according to the Stockton Record.
Merced County raided 191 illegal growing sites from Oct. 1, 2016, to this October, according to Framstad, confiscating more than 54,000 plants. They also took 30 guns at those sites.
Warnke noted that the ordinance that allows 12 plants outdoors was originally put in place to aid people who would grow for medical use. He said allowing six plants indoors should meet those needs, and cut out those trying to sell it.
He said many people growing marijuana “just want to get high,” and said others want “one thing only, they want a profit.”
Proposition 64, approved by California voters in November last year, legalized the possession and recreational use of marijuana. It also legalized the sale of marijuana for recreational use starting Jan. 1, 2018 – but gave cities and counties the authority to regulate or prohibit commercial cannabis operations in their jurisdictions.
Bufford said adults should be able to grow plants if they want to, as allowed by Prop 64.
The Merced County Planning Commission meeting is 9 a.m. Wednesday on the third floor of the administration building, 2222 M St.