Authorities seized tens of millions of dollars worth of illegal marijuana grown in the high desert Tuesday as part of an effort to curtail the black market’s grip on Southern California.
Twenty-three people were arrested in the crackdown Tuesday in the Antelope Valley, 70 miles north of Los Angeles, and officials planned to bulldoze 500 illegal grows in the area over the coming days.
So-called recreational marijuana became legal in California in 2018, but the black market continues to flourish.
The massive bust was partly in response to residents’ complaints of water being stolen, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said during a news conference in Lancaster. The largest grow discovered Tuesday had more than 70 greenhouses over 10 acres, with an estimated marijuana crop worth $50 million.
Villanueva did not have an immediate count of the amount of marijuana seized Tuesday, but he said officials were measuring it by the tons. Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris said Tuesday’s operation had found $380 million worth of infrastructure and marijuana in the area.
Unspecified cartels operating the illegal marijuana grows were stealing millions of gallons of water, the sheriff said. Armed cartel members were taking from wells maintained by alfalfa, potato and carrot farmers in the middle of the night, as well as breaking fire hydrants and operating their own illegal wells.
Villanueva said the illegal grows breed violence, citing several murders related to the Antelope Valley’s black market. In April, a robbery at a cultivation site resulted in a shootout.
The sheriff did not immediately have information regarding the charges anyone arrested would face. But he said they would likely be a mix of state misdemeanors and felony offenses, with the possibility of federal cases. Five firearms were seized.