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Local News

Sheriff’s Department Seizes Many Plants, Makes Few Arrests in Marijuana Busts

Authorities say the bottom line is eradication, and that simple logistics sometimes prevent them from tracking down growers

With 22,099 plants and about 800 pounds of processed marijuana yanked out of the ground, greenhouses and vehicle trunks by the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department since the end of July, there have been only eight arrests. The street value of all that pot was about $56 million.

Even months later, the investigations are still open, so further details aren’t exactly forthcoming. However, department spokesman Drew Sugars shed some light on the low arrest count.

He said the grows usually have people living on them, which gives the growers a “home field advantage” of thorough knowledge of the area. The element of surprise is difficult in such cases, and when several detectives approach the area, the growers aren’t confrontational — they make a run for it.

“Sometimes, there’s literally food still cooking on their little camp stove,” Sugars said. “That’s how close we are.”

Realistically, eradication is the department’s main effort, he said. Taking people into custody is that much better, but when people flee into the hills, the department has to determine whether it’s worth it to pursue them into the county’s masses of open, undeveloped space.

Take Wednesday, for example. The Sheriff’s Department raided a Lompoc-area grow where they pursued three cars attempting to flee. Two cars were stopped, and two people were arrested, and all but one person from the third car got away. Hundreds of pounds of pot and loaded guns were found in the cars of the individuals, who are all believed to be Mexican nationals. A helicopter circled the area until 10 p.m., but the department is “not actively looking” for those who escaped anymore, Sugars said.

The three suspects arrested have been charged with multiple marijuana- and firearm-related felonies.

With Wednesday’s grow — and others like it — their size leads one to wonder how they ever escaped detection in the first place. But even if they’re outside, plants can be well-concealed to avoid being seen from the air, Sugars said.

Most busts are the result of spotting them from the air or getting tipped off, or grows are discovered in the course of a different investigation.

The sheer amount of marijuana eradicated in such a short period of time also prompts the question of what sheriff’s department officials do with all of it. Well, they aren’t going to tell you. Depending on the case, it’s either held for evidence or destroyed. The plants can occasionally be destroyed on site, but otherwise they have to be hauled away — and officials don’t want people to know where it goes, Sugars said. Mulching the plants until they’re powder effectively destroys the plants and doesn’t create more concentrated cannabis since the entire plant is mixed together, he said.

The grow-related arrests include felony charges of possession for sale, cultivation and criminal conspiracy. They’re the same charges some Santa Barbara city medical marijuana dispensary owners have been charged with, though Sugars says there’s an obvious difference between those protected under Proposition 215 and those who aren’t.

“We’re going after drug traffickers,” Sugars said. “A lot of cartels are hiding out in California behind the Compassionate Use Act. (Proposition 215) did not intend to allow drug traffickers to take over a large portion of land, start growing marijuana on it, booby trap it and place armed guards on it.”

Going back to the beginning of what seems to be a pot-busting streak, the Sheriff’s Department eradicated 5,800 young marijuana plants in a canyon east of Mariposa Reina on the Gaviota Coast. No one was on the property at the time the search warrant was served, so there were no arrests.

In August, the biggest bust known in the county went down at a former Dos Pueblos Orchid Co. property, where nine greenhouses yielded 10,000 plants and 100 pounds of processed cannabis, valued at $41 million. Two men were arrested and held on $30,000 bail for felony charges of possession of marijuana for sale and cultivation.

The department also teamed up with San Luis Obispo County for a raid near Santa Maria that month, with 5,400 plants and three arrests. Those arrests included criminal conspiracy charges and higher bail.

On Oct. 4, narcotics detectives raided a North County grow near Colson Canyon and a South County grow off San Marcos Pass, which netted about 900 plants and 300 pounds of processed pot between them, but no arrests.

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk or @NoozhawkNews.

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