Los Angeles County officials agreed Tuesday to spend $5 million to crack down on illegal cannabis grow operations in the Antelope Valley and dispensaries in unincorporated areas countywide as part of a $39.3 billion budget for the 2021-22 fiscal year.
Supervisor Kathryn Barger had pushed hard for the funding, even as community advocates sought to shut down any new funds going to the Sheriff’s Department.
“Illegal cannabis operations continue to threaten the well-being of our residents, water supply and environment,” Barger said Tuesday. “By empowering and equipping our law enforcement partners with the resources they need, we can better protect our communities.”
Roughly half of the $5 million will go to bolster Sheriff’s Department efforts to shut down grow operations that steal water and damage the environment. That includes 10 trucks needed to investigate on rough, rural terrain.
Another unit within the department will target illegal dispensaries in unincorporated areas, including the Antelope Valley.
The LASD also has a $500,000 grant that can be used to fund both efforts.
Barger said that during a 10-day operation this summer, the LASD worked in partnership with local, state and federal partners to seize 16 tons of illegal cannabis plants worth $1.19 billion in the Antelope Valley.
Arrests in the operation totaled 131, and 180 animals living on grow sites were rescued, according to Barger, who said grows in the Antelope Valley have increased from 150 in 2020 to more than 500.
In July, Barger unsuccessfully sought support from her colleagues for tougher criminal penalties for commercial cannabis and hemp grow operations that she said are using dangerous pesticides, stealing water from fire hydrants and frightening neighbors into silence.
It’s not just local residents who are affected, Barger said in July, noting that unregulated chemicals can harm buyers even beyond the L.A. Basin.
During public comment at that July meeting, residents painted a picture of a lawless environment in which locals were challenged at gunpoint and enforcement was close to nonexistent.
“This is not the Wild West. Our taxpaying citizens should be safe in the Fifth District and not be intimidated by cartel thugs,” Green Valley Town Councilmember Joe Randles said at the time. “Our groundwater is being contaminated by grow chemicals, our water systems are being compromised by theft, our land is being decimated along with the protected Joshua trees. This is an unfolding disaster.”
Chris Minsal, a lifelong resident of the north county and president of the Pearblossom Rural Town Council, said he wanted to see commercial cannabis regulated, rather than banned, to generate tax dollars for enforcement against illegal operators.
“Never in my life (have) I ever seen lawlessness like I’ve witnessed over the last year, with people doing whatever they want, because they all know there’s only one, maybe two sheriffs at any given time covering an area the size of the San Fernando Valley,” Minsal said in July. “It’s easy to hide, threaten people, take over a town, ruin quality of life for its residents.”
As for dispensaries, they are illegal in all unincorporated areas of the county, even as they operate profitably elsewhere.
The county’s prohibition on marijuana dispensaries in unincorporated areas has been in place since 2010 and was broadened in 2017 to include the cultivation, manufacture, testing and distribution of the drug for other than personal use.
California voted to legalize cannabis in 2016 and legal recreational sales began in January 2018. The county agreed in July to reconsider its ban.