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  • Writer's pictureBreathe Free Oregon

How Cartels Took Over California's Desert and Turned It to Lawless Land | Dawn Rowe

Updated: Mar 23

Note: Full video is no longer available; YouTube notes that the YouTube California Insider account has been terminated. Below is a summary of the original video with a link to this short version of the interview at the bottom.

San Bernardino County Supervisor Dawn Rowe discusses the harm that illegal marijuana grows and related cartel activity have caused in San Bernardino and how the county has responded. California’s Prop 64 made illegal marijuana grows a misdemeanor with a $500 fine, regardless of the size of the grow or the number of plants; prior to Prop 64 illegal grows were a felony. After Prop 64 was passed, illegal grows in California dramatically increased. Growers consider the $500 fine simply the cost of doing business.

Cartels are involved with many illegal grows. Residents of San Bernardino County reported:

  • While walking or riding horses, residents were instructed by people with weapons in SUVs not to stop in that area or to take another road next time.

  • Public works crews instructed by people with weapons the crew should go away and not grade the road that day.

  • Residents didn’t feel safe and quality of life was ruined.

Other issues related to cartel activity and illegal grows included:

  • Sheriffs deputies were shot at when investigating the grows.

  • Environmental impacts include illegally tapping wells and illegal chemical contaminants in soil or groundwater.

  • Growers practice human trafficking to get workers for the grows. The workers live and work in substandard conditions.

Between resident reports and drone investigations, watch towers and patrols were observed at the illegal grow sites.

Growers find property for their grows in a few different ways. Some purchase land and homes from residents who no longer want to live in these conditions. Others lease property or they set up grows on land that is not theirs.

The illegal grows are extremely hard to prosecute or otherwise address. Many times when grows are raided, the human trafficked laborers are the only ones found on site. They often don’t speak English and arresting them does not address the problem. On leased properties, the tenant often has a “disconnected” phone number, and no one can get a hold of them.

San Bernardino instituted an Abatement Ordinance, where they initially fine the $500 that Prop 64 allows. Then there is an immediate requirement to remove the hoop houses. If they are not removed, there are progressive fines starting at $3000, then $6000, then $10,000 that can accrue daily. If the property owner does not pay the fines, the county puts a lien against the property. The property can eventually be sold at auction. In short, the property owners are held accountable. This has successfully decreased illegal grow activities.

In 2022, the county:

- Eradicated 1,100 illegal cannabis locations, which included 8,600 greenhouses

- Seized 1.4 million cannabis plans

- Seized 97 tons of processed marijuana

- Seized 175 lbs of concentrated cannabis oils

- Confiscated 350 illegal firearms

- The estimated street value of cannabis seized was over $1 billion

- Netted 946 felony arrests and 433 misdemeanor arrests

But what has this cost the county? The county allotted $10 million out of its community concerns budget to address the problem. This is a county discretionary funds budget that residents pay for - meaning the funds came out of the county’s / residents’ own pockets and it meant they had to divert funds from other services.

In addition, the county had to create special teams to investigate reported grows. To do this, they pulled deputies from stations throughout the county, leaving other stations short-handed. As a result, unrelated violent crimes increased until the staffing shortage could be addressed.


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