The $1 billion bust is only a small percentage of illegal marijuana growth in Southern California deserts.
Nearly a billion dollars in illegal marijuana was seized by authorities in the Antelope Valley north of Los Angeles over the past month, which was deemed the largest bust in Los Angeles County history. Police seized about 373,000 plants that would've valued at nearly $1 billion if sold on the streets, but the bust only took out a fraction of illegal grows in the Southern California high desert.
Officials said Wednesday that multiple law enforcement agencies participated in a ten-day operation called "Marijuana Eradication Operation" last month in the Antelope Valley which culminated in 131 arrests and more than 33,000 pounds of harvested marijuana plants seized into police control. Aerial surveillance in the area spotted about 500 illegal grows in the area of operation, but the mission only took out 205 of those grows. Authorities believe there are bountiful amounts of plants residing in nearby counties.
California had legalized recreational marijuana sales more than three years ago, but legal marijuana taxes have steered customers toward a thriving black market. Officials clarified that the Antelope Valley operation was not an attempt to suffocate the legal market, as it was solely focused on minimizing the amount of illegal marijuana-related activity in the area.
“This is not a war on the legal cannabis business in California,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Garcia, a representative of the area.
Armed cartel members are in charge of these massive illegal grows, which can span across dozens of greenhouses. These operations are affecting the legal market, as consumer dollars are redirected toward sales and operations that aren't under the purview of the California state government.
According to Sheriff Alex Villanueva, the amount of illegal grows had expanded in the past year, when he last pointed out about 150 identified grows in the area. Part of what made the growing operations illegal was that cartel members had threatened nearby residents and stole millions of gallons of water – all during a piercing drought in the area – to grow their plants. The illegal grows wound up poisoning water streams and groundwater with pesticides that hurts wildlife and plants.
“What we want to do is send a clear and loud message to all the cartels and anyone doing illegal operations in the high desert,” Sheriff Villanueva said in a news release. “Your days here are over and we’re coming for you.”