The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department with the assistance of other law enforcement agencies completed several days of marijuana eradication last week.
The Sheriff’s Department identifies marijuana fields in Santa Barbara County throughout the year. The majority of these grows are found in the national forest areas within Santa Barbara County.
About 25 law enforcement personnel participated in the eradication efforts, working in conjunction with the California Department of Justice CAMP (Campaign Against Marijuana Planting) Task Force, the U.S. Forest Service and the Santa Barbara County Search & Rescue Team.
Over a period of several days, the operation cleared grows in numerous locations, all within national forests. Two notable locations included a multiple grow in the Sierra Madre Road area generally southwest of Cuyama, an area that yielded about 10,500 marijuana plants in various stages of growth ranging from a few inches high to over 5 feet tall. Another area off of East Camino Cielo yielded more than 1,300 plants in various stages of growth. A loaded 9 mm handgun was found in the growers’ camp at this location.
In total, the operation seized about 11,857 mature marijuana plants. The estimated street value of the plants seized totals $29,642,500, according to a Drug Enforcement Administration valuation. Also located were about 38 pounds of processed marijuana with an estimated street value of $95,000.
As part of this eradication, trash, tents, tarps and various chemicals, including rat poison, were removed from the illegal gardens. The amount of trash removed exceeded 2,300 pounds.
During the eradication of outdoor marijuana grows, officials have seen the negative impact of these illegal gardens on the environment. The illegal dumping of trash, pesticides and poisons pollutes the water supply, and the damming and rerouting of natural streams and creeks prohibit the natural vegetation from a flourishing. In 2009, the cause and origin of the 90,000-acre La Brea Fire was determined to be a faulty propane tank in an illegal marijuana garden. There were a total of eight propane tanks taken out of the illegal marijuana gardens during this eradication operation.
Also noticed during this operation was evidence of illegal poaching within the national forest near the illegal grows. Animal parts including antlers and skins were found within the camps associated with the illegal marijuana gardens.
No arrests were made during the operations, although the camps associated with the marijuana grows were inhabited until just before law enforcements’ arrival at the locations. Evidence recovered at several locations indicate that Mexican nationals were living in grows and tending to them. Over the years, Mexican nationals have had an increased presence in illegal marijuana cultivation in the United States.
The CAMP eradication figures illustrate the trend toward Mexican drug trafficking organizations increasingly growing cannabis in California as an additional way to introduce an illicit source of marijuana into the United States. According to CAMP authorities, in the late 1990s large grows typically contained 3,000 to 5,000 plants; in 2003, large grows typically contained 5,000 to 10,000 plants, with several having 30,000 to 40,000 plants. It would not be unusual for Santa Barbara County to find grows of this size in this county. Correspondingly, marijuana seizures within 150 miles of the California portion of the U.S.-Mexico border have decreased during this time, according to the Justice Department Drug Intelligence Center).
Large-scale marijuana cultivation is a serious and increasingly widespread problem on public lands in California, including in Los Padres National Forest in Santa Barbara County. These illegal operations threaten the safety of residents and visitors to the national forest as well as severely damaging the environment.
The increasingly large and sophisticated marijuana plantations are very often the work of dangerous drug cartels, and forest visitors or residents who happen upon them may be harassed or assaulted. The growers are usually armed, sometimes with automatic weapons and high-powered rifles, and have been known to place booby-traps designed to seriously maim or kill intruders.
Visitors to the forest who observe individuals carrying irrigation tubing, packing in large amounts of food, the same vehicle parked in the same area multiple times per week/month, new trails or increased use to areas where there would appear to be no attraction, or unusual loss of flow of water in creeks should contact the Sheriff’s Department immediately.
— Sgt. Mark Williams is a public information officer for the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department.