In the summer of 2021, the I-Team toured the high desert by helicopter with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department and spotted greenhouse after greenhouse that law enforcement said housed illegal marijuana grows both big and small.
From the air and on the ground, the Sheriff’s Marijuana Enforcement Teams, or MET, are busy trying to eradicate these illicit operations.
It’s painstaking work, spanning hundreds of thousands of acres. Armed with search warrants, bullet proof vests and clippers, the MET targeted eight different illegal grows on the day the NBC4 I-Team shadowed their operation.
Deputies chopped down plants in all stages of development and estimated those brought to maturity could be worth $1,000 apiece.
San Bernardino County Sheriff Shannon Dicus spoke Monday about the recent work of his METs.
“In the last year the marijuana enforcement teams served a total of 411 search warrants for illegal marijuana grows, and we’re talking just a 365-day period,” said Sheriff Dicus. “They discovered 14 honey oil labs, recovered 655,000 marijuana plants, 74,000 pounds of processed marijuana and $370 million during that period of time.”
This black market is big business with new illicit operations sprouting daily. Deputies told us scouts in the area spread word about the sweeps, and we encountered only one person onsite the day we followed along.
““No mas aqui trabajando,” said the man.
He told deputies, “I was just working.”
But the I-Team learned tending an illegal grow is just a misdemeanor with a fine of only $500.
We spotted the drilling of illegal wells, endangering the already limited desert water supply, along with open chemical pits, dangerous pesticides and the illegal trucking of water.
“The majority of people that I have stopped driving these vehicles have either not been licensed at all or do not have the proper license to drive a vehicle,” explained CHP Officer Heath Kuhlmann.
A deadly accident in 2021 killed three girls walking on the side of the road in Victorville. Many in the community believed the hit-and-run driver was connected to an illegal grow.
And, this month’s murders in Adelanto are not the first deadly attacks connected to illegal marijuana. In the fall of 2020, seven people were murdered the community of Aguanga in neighboring Riverside County in what deputies descried as an illegal grow and processing operation.
That crime remains unsolved.
“We’ve unleashed a plague in California,” said Sheriff Dicus. “And the plague is the black market of marijuana and certainly cartel activity.”
Voters approved legalizing pot in California with Proposition 64, but it also downgraded illegal cultivation from a felony to a misdemeanor.
“Six, a thousand a million,” said Lt. Bracco, referring to the number of marijuana plants. “It’s all the same, it’s just a misdemeanor in California.”
In fact, in the six other Western states that have legalized recreational marijuana, illegal cultivation remains a felony with serious fines and jail time. Law enforcement believe California’s lax rules draw a dangerous element to places like the high desert.
“One of our neighbors got shot at only because they were picking up trash on their property that came from an illegal grow,” said a Lucerne Valley resident in 2021 who did not want to be identified for fear of what could happen to him and his family.
But that same resident told the I-Team since then, he has seen marked improvement in his neighborhood thanks to the Sheriff’s Marijuana Enforcement Teams. He credits San Bernardino Supervisor and now Board Chair Dawn Rowe with spearheading funding efforts for the Sheriff’s department and code enforcement in the county.