The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to collaborate with federal, state and local officials to shut down illegal cannabis grow operations in the Antelope Valley, while agreeing to reconsider a longstanding county ban on commercial marijuana.
Supervisor Kathryn Barger warned three weeks ago that commercial cannabis and hemp grow operations in her district are using dangerous pesticides, stealing water from fire hydrants and frightening neighbors into silence. However, she failed to get support from her colleagues on a plan of action that included tougher criminal penalties and required four votes to pass.
Tuesday, Barger asked for support of a substitute motion co-authored by Supervisor Sheila Kuehl that did not include any mention of stricter penalties. It passed unanimously.
“Make no mistake, illegal marijuana grows are something that impacts the entire county of Los Angeles. Illegal growers are using unregulated chemicals to process marijuana (and) selling products to legal and illegal dispensaries in and outside the L.A. Basin, endangering cannabis users,” Barger said.
She said two bears had been found poisoned by pesticides near one valley grow operation, and added that the problem is not limited to outdoor crops.
“Outdoor grows expand over multiple areas in the middle of the valley surrounded by debris and trash, while indoor grows have taken over homes in residential areas, converting family homes into suburban cannabis farms,” Barger added.
During public comment, 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. “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. “It’s easy to hide, threaten people, take over a town, ruin quality of life for its residents.”
Other residents argued against commercialization, saying no other jurisdictions have been successful in controlling illegal operations, but all agreed that more money and resources are needed.
In addition to pushing for more authority and resources from the state to battle illegal growers, the board agreed to allocate $250,000 for more sheriff’s patrols in the area. The board also asked for a report on the potential for more funding through this year’s supplemental budget.
Jeffrey Hillinger, vice president of the Littlerock Town Council, said he lives across the street from four separate grow operations.
“It’s just ridiculous out here. I would urge the rest of the Board of Supervisors to come out here. Maybe get in a helicopter, take a flight, take a look at what’s going on with our desert out here and all these drugs,” Hillinger said.
The board also voted on a separate motion by Supervisor Janice Hahn to reconsider its longstanding ban on commercial cannabis.
“Providing a legal pathway can help us tackle the illegal market, by giving them a legal option,” Hahn said.
In October 2017, roughly one year after California voted to legalize recreational use of marijuana, a county work group generated a report including dozens of recommendations on how to regulate cannabis retailing, production and distribution.
Hahn, who was among those who shelved that report, said it was time to dust it off and reconvene a group of relevant stakeholders.
“I think it’s at least time to revisit that conversation and think how we can safely implement the will of the voters when they approved Prop 64,” Hahn said.
Barger agreed with the idea of reconsidering the broad ban, though she said she didn’t believe it would discourage illegal operations.
Barger said one reason she chose not to revise the county ban earlier was because of a memo by then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions directing all U.S. prosecutors to enforce federal laws making marijuana illegal. County counsel told Barger that he believed that memo had since been rescinded, but said his office would double check.
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.