Illegal cannabis concerns discussed at Public Lands Roundtable

Illegal cannabis concerns discussed at Public Lands RoundtableBy Christina MacGregor

News Review Staff Writer

Lorrie Steely came with a mission to the Public Lands Roundtable meeting on Saturday morning, August 21st. She was one of the first individuals on the agenda and had an active audience from those sitting at the meeting at the Wild Horse and Burro Corral.

“In San Bernardino county, the proliferation of illegal (cannabis) farms is unbelievable,” said Steely.

“At my water district meeting on Thursday, we were told by a Lieutenant Sheriff of the marijuana enforcement team that there are currently 1100 identified illegal grows. They pepper the desert hillsides.

I live on a hillside at 4,000 elevation on ten acres. On my drive to the grocery store there is about seven miles of highway. Within eyesight of the highway we can see many of the farms. The sheriff told us that there are 30 white hoop houses within a 10-mile radius of where we live. They go up practically overnight.”

With Steely was a letter for individuals at the meeting to sign. In the letter to Governor Newsom, James Harvey, the president of the grassroots organization Homestead Valley Committee Council (HVCC), explained how Prop 64 (AUMA) has done havoc to small communities in California, and needs some addendums.

“Basically what it comes down to is Prop 64 changing the consequences of these farms from a felony to a misdemeanor. Our sheriff departments have no teeth anymore. The illegal growers are less afraid of the sheriffs and police departments than the fellow cartels stealing their product.”

Prop 64, a voter initiative passed that legalized marijuana, included the promise to end black-market growth and sale of illicit marijuana in California. Instead, according to Steely, the passing of the prop caused an explosion of unlicensed, unregulated, and unlawful farms that operate in plain sight with no fear of consequence. According to the letter, these farms tax local water resources in communities that are in dire need of water during the current state-wide drought, use dangerous pesticides that harm wildlife and cause ecological damage through irresponsible open discard of trash and human waste.

HVCC’s purpose in the letter is to seek changes on the few sentences in Section 8 of Prop 64 that downgraded the penalties and fines for illegal marijuana growth from felony status to misdemeanor, arguing that change is the reason for the explosion of illegal farms at this time. They received public statements from local law enforcements that say that that is indeed the cause of the surge of illegal growth. Those police forces also said that it is impossible for them to respond effectively to the illegal growth with the recent law changes, as indicated by the ever-expanding number of illicit farms that are appearing daily.

“Visual imagery in our county has shown time-lapse snapshots, and shows that from October of last year to June of this year there has been a 58% increase of illegal grows, and it is only getting worse,” explained Steely.

A big complaint is that since these farms are illegal, the operators don’t pay income tax, capital gains tax, employee tax, regulation and production fees, and sales tax. The legal cannabis industry has also suffered from illegal growers as well, as they do all of these things.”

Illegal marijuana growth causes other issues in desert communities, too. Besides the desert being wide and vast, making it hard for residents to know who is there legally and who is not, there is also an issue with water theft

“I am a general manager of my local water district, and I have residents who are basically in collusion with these illegal cartels and illegal growers,” said Steely.

“We have a finite amount of water- this is the desert. I have one resident who has sold 700,000 gallons of water. Part of the point of this meeting is to be cognizant of what is going on, and cooperate with our local sheriffs and state-level authorities to stop these grows and water theft.”

Steely went on to explain the full impact of the water issue that locals are facing.

“We were told that the plants consume one gallon of water per plant per day. A hoop house that is 100 feet by 40 feet can have between 285- 300 plants. If you have 23 acres, and you have 20 hoop houses, you can do the math.

Our congressman spoke earlier this month at a town hall meeting, and said that the consumption expectation is 30 million gallons of water per month, and it is only growing.”

Steely explained, “As a county we are working with Lahontan- that is one of the boundaries we share. Kern and San Bernadino are under the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board. That is the way we network and why we have ties. The county of San Bernadino has made efforts to be more stringent in stopping illegal farms, but it is hard. We need help.

Steely continued, “The letter requests the Governor Newsom to call an immediate extraordinary session in order to be able to address this issue, so we don’t have to wait for it to get through all the minutia, as it would work its way up the senate, and work its way through the house, a process that could take years. By that time, if the growers haven’t made their money and gone away, we’ll start to have subsidence. Subsidence happens when locations where the water aquafers were begin to collapse because there is no water there any more.

A lot of the growers move water in broad daylight. They are not intimidated. In fact, one of the things that they do is use an intimidation factor, and try to intimidate communities and residents. We have residents who are afraid to ride their horses or walk their dogs, because these farms have armed patrols. At the state level, there was an expectation of bringing in tax dollars, under the guise of safer communities, but has actually created a proliferic criminal element that is really terrorizing communities.

Some farms use illegal human trafficking to get workers. The cartels are paying for individuals to get into the country, with the guise that they can work off their debt. Sometimes that debt never gets worked off, and people are unfortunately buried in the desert. Some workers are threatened with harm to their families. The workers are often victims, too.”

Steely went on to tell of one such instance.

“There was one specific bust in Searles Valley, where they had 45 RV campers on a 40 acre farm. With 45 RVs, and many occupants per RV, there was an issue with human waste and trash.

The growers also used carbofuran, an extremely deadly pesticide. It affects the humans and wildlife, and is very deadly to both.”

Carbofuran is used around the world for killing insects, but it is banned for food crops in the United States. Regulators took carbofuran off of the American market in 2008 after it was blamed for killing more birds in the US than any other pesticide in history.

A California Department of Fish and Wildlife official said authorities found two bears near illegal farms in the Searles Valley area that died from ingesting pesticides.

Desert residents are mad about the issues these illegal farms are causing, and, despite the fear they feel from facing the cartels, are fighting back. San Bernardino allocated $10.4 million on August 3rd to combat the illegal cannabis growers.

“Previously San Bernardino county had one five-man marijuana enforcement team. The lieutenant in charge of that team is now the head of the department. Now there will be five teams of five men, and they are also training code enforcement to be able to be implemented into those five teams of five. There are a lot of entities partnering for this. Lahontan has been working with Mojave Water Agency (MWA). They are using (different points of interest) in these cases.

There is a landscape-wide impact, so hopefully we can get a landscape-wide voice. That’s part of the goal...We need to get vocal about the trash and the firearm issues,” urged Steely, “We need to escalate this to a state level. Right now, in San Bernadino, we got the Department of Fish and Wildlife working with us as well as some other agencies. Getting regulatory agencies to help us is key.

We need to tell CHPs to get the illegal water vehicles off the road and impounded, and push for stronger laws for those planting these illegal farms. That is really what made all of this occur. We also need to price individuals out of the commodity business of selling our water. If we don’t stop this now during this drought, we are all going to be in for a world of hurt.”

Laura Austin Photo: White hoop houses pepper desert landscapes with identified illegal marijuana grows. Law enforcement seeks cooperation to stop water theft and the use of extremely deadly pesticides.

Story First Published: 2021-09-03