The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department has completed a record year for marijuana eradication in the county.

The sheriff’s Narcotics Bureau discovered 22 illegal grow sites in 2009, an increase of more than 25 percent from the 16 marijuana gardens discovered the year before. The larger number of grows resulted in the eradication of more than 238,335 marijuana plants.

“That’s an increase of more than 350 percent from just one year ago,” Lt. Sonny LeGault said. “Not only does it confirm how widespread this problem has become in our beautiful backcountry, it also shows the sheriff’s department is committed to eliminating the grows that we find.”

Thus far, the sheriff’s department has seen a slight decrease in indoor marijuana gardens in 2009, with the seizure of 1,954 plants (worth $5.86 million) compared with 2,517 plants in 2008. The total combined indoor and outdoor plant count for 2009 is 240,219 with an estimated street value of more than $720 million.

“240,000 plants averages out to about half a plant for every resident in Santa Barbara County,” said Comm. Laz Salinas, who oversees the department’s special investigations. “This is not for medicinal use; this is purely for profit, which can come at a very high price in terms of the public’s safety.”

In the past several years, the majority of the outdoor marijuana gardens have been linked to Mexican drug-trafficking organizations and the ensuing challenges they create. For example, in 2007, the the sheriff’s department investigated a murder that stemmed from two Mexican drug-trafficking organizations that were fighting over growing territory.

Another probable homicide occurred this year in a marijuana garden in the hills of Santa Barbara. Detectives are still investigating that incident, which has led to search warrants in five counties, the seizure of several hundred pounds of marijuana, more than a kilo of cocaine and the arrest of 17 suspects believed to be part of a Mexican drug-trafficking organization. The investigations have taxed department resources both physically and financially.

The eradication of outdoor marijuana grows also has revealed the negative impact the illegal gardens have 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 flourishing. Earlier this year, the cause and origin of the 90,000-acre La Brea Fire was determined to be a faulty propane tank in a marijuana garden.

The sheriff’s department received assistance this past year from the Department of Justice, the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP), the Drug Enforcement Administration, the National Guard, the U.S. Coast Guard and Santa Barbara County Search and Rescue.

Large-scale marijuana cultivation is a serious and increasingly widespread problem on public lands in California, including the Los Padres National Forest in Santa Barbara County. These illegal operations threaten the safety of residents and visitors to the forest as well as harming the environment Individuals involved in the cultivation, harvest and production of marijuana and other illegal narcotics can be extremely dangerous. Growers are often armed and marijuana fields are often booby-trapped.

Visitors who come across a suspected marijuana garden or individuals involved in marijuana cultivation should leave the area immediately. Note the location and contact the local law enforcement agency or the sheriff’s department at 805.681.4100 or the Anonymous Tip Line at 805.681.4171.

— Drew Sugars is a public information officer for the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department.