In 1996 California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana, and two decades later, voters approved a recreational cannabis ballot (Proposition 64). While legalization is a huge step forward in any state, California has been plagued with illegal grow operations that cause damage on multiple levels. Lawmakers have been taking stock of the situation, and San Bernardino County has backed several bills to address these illicit cultivators.
San Bernardino County is located in the Southwest corner of California and hosts diverse and beautiful sites, including Joshua Tree National Park and Big Bear Lake. The county is home to over 2 million people, and the many natural features attract many tourists. However, the ecosystems and citizens of San Bernardino County have both been ravaged by illegal grow operations. County officials are ready to combat these operations and the effects they cause by backing attempts at the state level to crack down on illicit cultivators.
This is not the first time the county has targeted illicit grow operations. The county launched “Operation Hammer Strike” 28 weeks ago. In those six months, investigators have served search warrants which resulted in the seizure of 668,299 marijuana plants, 111,268.8 pounds of processed marijuana, 203 guns, 30.7 pounds of concentrated marijuana, and $2,399,595 in illegal narcotic sales proceeds. Officials also seized other illicit drugs during this time. While “Operation Hammer Strike” has been seen as a success, lawmakers hope new bills will continue to tackle illegal cultivation sites.
San Bernardino legislators are hoping to tackle one of the most significant hurdles, the lenient penalties illicit operators face. The county is supporting legislation that is in the California Assembly and Senate. This legislation would increase fines for illegal marijuana cultivation. The legislation also aims to target pollution caused by illegal grow operations in the groundwater.
When California voters approved Proposition 64, language in the proposition reduced the penalty for illicit cultivation from a felony to a misdemeanor. While this does protect home cultivators and smaller-scale growers, it did not account for the massive illegal grow sites that would take over California and wreak havoc. Dawn Rowe, the vice-chair of the San Bernardino Board of Supervisors, told the Mohave Valley Daily News, “If someone grows 7, 700 or 70,000 cannabis plants without a license, the punishment is all the same—it is a misdemeanor. State law needs real punishments to eliminate large-scale illegal cannabis farms; rural Californians will continue to suffer.” She continued, “California law on cannabis crimes lacks serious penalties.”
San Bernardino County lawmakers are seeking to implement those severe penalties. Rep. Thurston Smith (R-Apple Valley) proposed Assembly Bill 1725 earlier this year. This bill would reverse the Prop. 64 provisions and reinstate the felony charge for illegal growers. He also put forth Assembly Bill 2728; this bill would add an additional civil penalty depending on the size of the growth operation. If passed, these bills could go a long way to dissuade illicit operators from setting up shop. However, the punishment must fit the crime; if a grower has one plant over the legal limit, they should not face a felony charge that operators growing thousands of plants should face. The answer lies somewhere in tailoring misdemeanors and felonies dependent on the size of the operation.
Lawmakers are also confronting the terrible environmental impacts these illegal grow operations create. Droughts have been exasperated, citizens have had water shortages, firefighters have not been able to combat blazes because of siphoned water. Many illegal growers do not use recyclable packaging like mylar bags, so littering runs rampant. Sen. Anna Caballero (D-Salinas) has proposed Senate Bill 1426. “Illegal cannabis farming is killing wildlife and wreaking environmental damage across the state,” Caballero said about the bill. “This bill will help stop the pollution of our groundwater supply and the theft of water, which are all the more important during an ongoing multi-year drought.” SB 1426 includes provisions that would fight digging illegal wells, illicit growers operating water conveyance and infrastructure, and excessive use of hazardous chemicals, including pesticides and rodenticides.
San Bernardino County has also requested $10 million from the state to assist with environmental clean-up at hundreds of damaged illicit grow sites, following the footsteps of L.A. County’s money allocations.
Yet another piece of legislation San Bernardino County supports is Rep. Blanca Rubio’sRubio’s (D-Baldwin Park) AB 2421. The bill would give city attorneys and county lawyers expanded power to prosecute water theft and pollution. San Bernardino County Sheriff Shannon Dicus has openly supported this bill. Dicus said, “I appreciate these legislators’ efforts to give law enforcement practical and meaningful tools to address illegal marijuana cultivation.” He continued, “I look forward to our continued collaboration as we work to address issues which affect the residents in our communities.”
There is no doubt that comprehensive measures need to be taken to combat illicit grow operations. Californians will hopefully see these illegal operations weakened as new bills are signed into law. These state bills, backed by San Bernardino County, could help stop the damage these operations cause. The key will be to keep laws that protect medical patients and adult-use consumers while crafting laws that directly tackle large, illegal cultivators.