Pot cultivation sites raided in Merced County

Crackdown ongoing as marijuana growing season rolls in

Sgt. Ray Framstad talks about Merced County's illegal marijuana cultivation on Saturday, Aug. 6, 2016.
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Sgt. Ray Framstad talks about Merced County's illegal marijuana cultivation on Saturday, Aug. 6, 2016.

Merced County Sheriff’s deputies raided a half-dozen sites, eradicating hundreds of marijuana plants deputies said were being grown illegally.

The harvest season for marijuana is approaching, and deputies have begun their annual crackdown, according to Sgt. Ray Framstad. He said growers typically plant an outdoor crop in February and collect it in June, then the process repeats itself from June to October.

Deputies started Saturday at a home outside of Merced on Highway 59 just south of Mission Avenue, where they found 310 plants behind plywood fences and in other structures, Framstad said. Geese, chickens and small dogs ran about as the deputies began hacking away at the plants.

The plants ranged from about a foot tall to as high as 6 feet.

“This isn’t a medical marijuana grow,” he said. “This is a grow for profit.”

Merced County allows qualified medical marijuana patients to grow up to 12 plants per parcel for personal use regardless of how many patients live there.

This isn’t a medical marijuana grow. This is a grow for profit.

Sgt. Ray Framstad

Marijuana is big business in Merced. In the past two weeks, the deputies have found plants at 15 locations, including indoors, outdoors and along rivers. So far this year deputies have collected about 27,000 plants, he said.

California’s water and sunshine make it an ideal place to grow marijuana, he said.

But growing marijuana illegally comes with side effects. Framstad pointed to chemicals sometimes used that can get into drinking water or damage the environment. Indoor cultivation, which tends to be more expensive because of the electricity use, can lead growers to steal power.

The theft of plywood from construction sites has become a problem, he said. Deputies, last year, also found about 50 guns, including assault rifles and handguns, at cultivation sites. “Half of these guns aren’t registered or (they’re) stolen,” he said.

This year could bring changes in state marijuana laws. Californians will vote this fall on whether to legalize marijuana for recreational use, and polls appear to show that Golden State residents can soon break out their bongs. The ballot measure, Proposition 64, has garnered $6.53 million in campaign contributions in the last reporting period.

Sheriff Vern Warnke said he’s sympathetic to people who legitimately use medical cannabis, but he believes in a zero-tolerance policy on marijuana. “There’s people being killed because they’re growing marijuana,” he said. “I just find it a huge responsibility on our part, as law enforcement, and I don’t think folks are looking at it for that.”

Drug cartels are often connected to the illegal growing sites, he said, and those sites can become targets for home invasions.

There’s people being killed because they’re growing marijuana.

Sheriff Vern Warnke

Marijuana advocates argue that legalizing pot will squeeze out the criminal element, because users can go to a dispensary rather than to cartels.

Warnke said if recreational use is approved, the state could see spikes in impaired driving and other problems.

States that have legalized recreational use, such as Colorado and Washington, have reported increases in fatal car accidents in which drivers have a detectable amount of cannabis in their system.

Advocates in those states have said the reports were poorly researched.

The sheriff’s office pulls down federal dollars to fight marijuana-growing sites. Framstad said the Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program pays for overtime hours and for costs for disposal.

Framstad said he’s asked regularly about what happens to all the confiscated plants. They’re taken to the Highway 59 landfill and ground into a heap of garbage, he said.

“Everything is paid for by the grant,” he said. “It’s a great way to get rid of it.”

The Sacramento Bee contributed to this report.

Thaddeus Miller: 209-385-2453, @thaddeusmiller