Officials seized more than 16 tons of harvested marijuana from illegal grows in the Antelope Valley area last month in what L.A. County Sheriff’s Department officials called a “historic” bust.
The street value of the seized plants is estimated at $1.19 billion, and more than 400 personnel from multiple departments and agencies served 205 locations with search warrants during the days-long operation.
Authorities seized 65 vehicles — including two water trucks — $28,000 in cash and made 131 arrests, Sheriff Alex Villanueva said during a news conference announcing the bust Wednesday.
The operation began on June 8, after authorities prepared for several weeks with the help of local, state and federal officials, as well as tips and complaints from residents in Lancaster and the Antelope Valley.
Villanueva said Los Angeles County has seen a “significant proliferation” of outdoor marijuana growth, especially in the high desert areas. He added that many cultivations are tied to Mexican drug trafficking organizations and organized crime groups.
In 2020, authorities identified 150 illegal outdoor marijuana grows in the area, while this year, they surveyed 500, Villanueva said.
The use of pesticides and fertilizer pose a threat to the environment and wildlife that “cannot begin to be calculated,” Villanueva said. Authorities even found two dead bears near grow sites.
The toxic chemicals threaten the water supply for residents and farmers in the eastern portion of the Antelope Valley.
Estimates found about 150 million gallons of water were used to bring plants to one harvest, Villanueva said.
“There’s four harvests a year, so do the math there,” the sheriff emphasized.
Aside from the environmental threat posed by marijuana cultivation, violent crimes can also be attributed to the illegal activity.
In July 2020, two homicide victims were found next to an illegal marijuana grow in unincorporated Lancaster, Villanueva said. In March, another homicide victim was found buried in the desert near Lake Los Angeles, and the people wanted in connection to the crime operated an illegal growth site in that area, according to the sheriff.
Additionally, threats by armed individuals against people living near grow sites, or even passersby, have increased.
During the operation, authorities demolished 30 locations and rescued 180 animals, including 84 dogs.
But that’s only about 40% of the identified grow sites, Villanueva said, indicating there is more work to be done.
“What we want to do is send a clear and loud message to the cartels and any one doing illegal operations in the high desert: Your days are over and we’re coming for you,” the sheriff said.