The recent discovery of a 40-acre illegal grow in Death Valley is part of a burgeoning problem in California. That was only one of the hundreds of illegal operations found throughout Death Valley in the past decade. It’s a problem that’s becoming familiar to more Californians as marijuana cultivation moves into more populated rural areas.
Legalizing adult use of marijuana was a big step towards dismantling the costly and ineffective war on drugs. Voters in California and 16 other states balked at the disproportionate targeting of minorities and the unprecedented powers it gave police over its citizens by way of asset forfeiture.
California had already dropped marijuana possession to an infraction in 2011, causing these arrests to fall by 85% the following year. But the misdemeanor charges, infraction fines, and court fees still available as punishment negatively impacted lives.
Prop 64 moved past the provisions of Prop 215 that legalized medical marijuana in 1996 in several ways; it allowed recreational use by adults over 21 and the growing of a limited number of plants.
It also contained two provisions that brought about a flood of unintended consequences: Allowing local government to control both cultivation and sales in their jurisdictions and making illegal, unlicensed marijuana grows a misdemeanor instead of a felony. The high taxes on legal marijuana set the match to this fuel of bad policy.
According to the New York Times, 80% of California’s approximately 500 local governments kept legal sales out of their districts. There is no legal access to marijuana in many areas, and illegal sellers are there to fill the void. A recent RAND study shows illegal retailers not only avoid taxes, making the product cheaper for consumers, but they also avoid rules about purchase limits or types of product. Their products aren’t subject to the same rigorous testing as their legal counterparts.
On the production side, illegal cultivation is creating enormous problems for rural communities throughout the state.
In San Bernardino County, rural communities are being inundated by illegal grows throughout the Morongo Basin, home to Joshua Tree National Park. Several cities in San Bernardino allow marijuana sales, but unincorporated areas of the county do not.
The two towns in Morongo Valley, Yucca Valley and 29 Palms decided to keep retail sales out, eliminating legal retail sales throughout the Morongo Valley.
Despite this, in the past few years, the number of illegal grows began accelerating in the rural areas with plenty of open land– Flamingo Heights, Landers, Wonder Valley, 29 Palms, Lucerne and Johnson Valleys.
When people began noticing more and more land getting fenced off, and plastic covered grow houses popping up, often with just a RV on site for a living space, they began to take notice.
Dramatic drone fly-over videos posted by Dragon One shows 19 illegal grows in a one-mile radius in 29 Palms. His follow-up video shows the bust of a pot farm on land rented out by David Lamb, the husband of a Cathedral City Councilwoman. He had been receiving abatement notices about the marijuana cultivation on his properties since 2018.
At the April meeting of the Homestead Valley Community Council, representatives and residents from four of the rural communities packed a small meeting hall to have the chance to directly address Dawn Rowe, their County Supervisor, along with officers from local law enforcement.
The HVCC President Jim Harvey read a letter composed by the Committee hoping to get more assistance from local officials in addressing the communities’ concerns:
“Of the seven western states to legalize marijuana, California is the only state experiencing wide-scale illicit marijuana grows operating with impunity and devastating rural areas across the state.”
Their concerns hit on the environmental devastation from tearing up the land, ignoring protections for Joshua trees, desert tortoises, and other wildlife, along with the use of pesticides and fertilizers might mean the contamination of groundwater.
There were stories from residents and law enforcement of bullying and intimidation, guard towers, underground bunkers, moats, and large sand berms.
Supervisor Rowe urged people to voice their concerns at the San Bernardino County Supervisor’s meeting the next day to push the Supervisors toward legislative means to address the problem.
“Even if we were to make it a fine of a thousand dollars per plant per day administrative fee, which the Board of Supervisor is looking at now, judges in other counties are throwing those fine out because they believe it’s not really fair. Eventually, the Board would like to tack the fine onto their property tax bill.”
Captain Lucas Niles of the Morongo Basin Patrol Station gave assurances that law enforcement is doing their best to address the problem but expressed his frustration at the lack of legal tools to make an impact:
“We hit 120 grows in less than a year. It’s like whack-a-mole. On Friday, we hit the same marijuana grow for the third time in 10 months because it’s a substantial one…We have to move our resources to where we can get the maximum effort at one time.”
When asked about Federal law enforcement help, he said he was told in no uncertain terms, “the Feds aren’t coming.”
Concerns about water usage prompted Big Horn Water Agency serving these areas to change to their water tiers. The Agency created a new “Agricultural” tier and increased the cost of installing a new meter to over fifteen thousand dollars. They aren’t allowed to deny a meter installation based on suspicion of illegal activity.
Last year, at least three bills on the state level attempted to enact fines of $30,000 a day for operating illegal grows, being a landlord to an operation, or helping to market or advertise their products. None of them passed.
Sam Kiernan, Executive Director of the California Cannabis Reform Project, thinks he may have a fix for California’s pot-related woes – a new proposition. Kiernan released a statement at the beginning of April announcing the initial draft of the proposition he hopes to put before voters. It would end local controls on marijuana sales, making access more consistent across the state and pushing sales toward legal retail outlets.
The proposition would also lower taxes, both cultivation and excise taxes on legal marijuana, helping to make it a more competitive choice for consumers.
Kiernan is hoping holdout communities around the state could be convinced if they see it as a way to curb the deeply entrenched illegal market.
In his announcement of the proposition, Kiernan quotes California’s Cannabis Advisory Committee’s warning to legislators:
“Despite the state’s committed effort to bring cannabis business fully into the regulated commercial market, as much as 80 percent of the cannabis market in California remains illicit.”
Kiernan doesn’t address the penalties for illegal cultivation and sale, but he is asking for input from all stakeholders in helping to shape this new proposition.