Pubdate: Tue, 17 Dec 2013
Source: Merced Sun-Star (CA)
Copyright: 2013 Merced Sun-Star
Authors: Rob Parsons, Carmen George and Lewis Griswold


MERCED COUNTY - Marijuana production and related crimes kept the
Merced County Sheriff's Department busy in 2013.

"We've seen substantial increases in every category," said Sgt. Kevin
Blake, head of the Sheriff's Tactical and Reconnaissance Team.

This year, deputies eradicated a total of 77,143 illegal plants and
seized more than 1,200 pounds of street-ready marijuana buds from both
indoor and outdoor grows. Additionally, the STAR team arrested more
than 30 people in connection with black-market plant production,
sought criminal charges against dozens more and seized about 100
firearms from growers, ranging from automatic weapons to pistols, Blake 

The central San Joaquin Valley is one of the hottest spots in the
nation for illegal marijuana grows. Merced County in particular has
become a popular spot for growers coming from other areas to set up.
"They came here because there was no ordinance," Blake said.

In September, the Merced County Board of Supervisors passed an
ordinance limiting cultivation to 12 plants per land parcel,
regardless of the property's size. Supervisors hope illegal growers
will view the legislation as a deterrent to large-scale operations.

Illegal growers are becoming bolder, many area sheriffs say, moving
from historical hideouts in national forests to the Valley floor  even
planting marijuana near elementary schools.

A key reason for the shift is California's medical marijuana law,
which is being manipulated to earn illegal traffickers a hefty payday,
officials say.

Growers often are shielded with doctor recommendations for medical
marijuana and routinely grow up to 99 marijuana plants, since 100
plants or more can mean harsher penalties if prosecuted federally.

"The system has been exploited to no end," Kings County Sheriff Dave
Robinson said. "These gang members get a medical marijuana card for a
migraine headache."

The majority of marijuana growers stayed in the mountains until
harsher crackdowns began in 2009, primarily in the Sequoia and Sierra
national forests, Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims said.

But that led to a troubling development.

"What the marijuana growers figured out was, by using the roots of
California's medical marijuana laws, they could grow on the Valley
floor, post (medical marijuana) recommendations, and their feeling was
it was completely legal," Mims said. "Our main challenge now are the
Valley floor grows."

Blake said growers have been moving out of the forests and into
residential neighborhoods, hiding behind medical marijuana laws to
protect their crops. "Unfortunately, the medical marijuana laws are
abused and taken advantage of," Blake said. "We see large-scale grows
that produce thousands of pounds of marijuana, which is not typically
needed for medical purposes."

In an attempt to evade prosecutors  who usually focus on the worst
offenders  many illegal growers group together a number of medical
marijuana recommendations and produce 99 plants for each
recommendation, officials said.

California's Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Act, was passed by
voters in 1996. Along with treating people with serious illnesses, it
states doctors can provide a medical marijuana recommendation for "any
other illness for which marijuana provides relief."

"However, there are restrictions in the (state) law," Mims said.
"There's a way for it to be legal, but people think it's just a
free-for-all, and it's not."

U.S. Attorney Ben Wagner, whose district covers 34 counties, including
Merced, Stanislaus and Fresno, said his district is No. 1 in the
nation for domestically produced marijuana.

"On the federal side, we see a lot of cases out of Fresno County in
which people purport to grow for medical purposes, but in fact (their
crops) are shipped to other states for profit," Wagner said.

The same is true in Merced County.

"It's grown here and taken to the East Coast, where prices can
triple," Blake said.

The dangers inherent with marijuana trafficking are

"The violence associated with these grows is the most concerning
aspect for us," Blake said. "We have had murders, robberies,
kidnappings and home invasions with direct links to cartels."

Two Mexican citizens were shot and killed "execution style" Nov. 23
outside Delhi. Sheriff Mark Pazin said both were in the United States
illegally and were part of a sophisticated marijuana-growing operation
with suspected links to a powerful Mexican drug cartel.

In Congress, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein has pushed for increased
dollars for investigation and enforcement.

Feinstein helped lobby for a federal boost earlier this month:
$400,000 for a special Central Valley program headed by Mims - made up
of many local, state and federal agencies in the Central Valley.

The senator said another way to combat drug traffickers is by
prosecuting environmental violations, such as illegal use of pesticides.

Feinstein also is asking the federal departments of Justice and
Agriculture to start a public information campaign to educate farmers
on how to protect themselves from illegal marijuana grows, often
hidden among crops on their land.

But even with proposed changes, some sheriffs don't see the Valley pot
predicament improving anytime soon.

"The last three or four years is where the boom has really happened,"
Madera County Sheriff John Anderson said. "It's just going to get worse."
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