Pot Worth $1.2B Seized in Record Drug Bust in LA County

Stephen Andrews
11 Jul 2021

Southern California authorities have seized over 16 tons of marijuana, the worth of which is estimated at $1.19 billion. The weeks-long sting is the most extensive eradication of illegal pot trafficking in the history of LA County.

LA county's record drug bust concluded last Wednesday (July 7), resulting in 22 felony arrests, 109 misdemeanor arrests, and 19 arrests from water theft enforcement teams, according to officials. 

The operation entailed searching more than 200 locations and seizing remarkable 375,000 marijuana plants. Law enforcement officers also seized 33,480 pounds of harvested marijuana, along with 65 vehicles, 180 animals, and $28,000 in cash. 

However, more arrests and more seizures of illegal drugs seem to be on the way. As officials also said, they've now only managed to reach about 40% of the unlawful crops previously identified from air. 

Rep. Mike Garcia, representing the area, has stated how he has spotted many illegal plantations first-hand by helicopter. 

"I saw hundreds of these illegal nurseries throughout our desert being manned by primarily illegal immigrants, some of which are armed," Garcia said. 

"Over 90% of the folks working these farms are indentured servants of some form," he said. 

At a press conference, officials emphasized that the operation is not an attack on the legal cannabis business but that it involved large-scale illegal plantations, protected by drug cartels and tied with violent crimes. 

"Many of these grows have been directly tied to Mexican drug trafficking organizations and Asian and Armenian organized crime groups," said Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva.

The sites where the drug is grown are directly linked to violent crime in California, he added.

In July 2020, the bodies of two murder victims were found adjacent to an illegal marijuana-growing site in Lancaster. Another person was also found buried in the desert near Lake Los Angeles in March 2021, with those accused of killing the victim running an illegal marijuana facility in the area.

The unprecedented operation eradicated only a portion of the illicit greenhouses in the Antelope Valley north of Los Angeles. While illegal crops have been present in the area in the past, the issue has grown in intensity with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it has affected the legal market. 

California, which legalized adult use of cannabis in 2016, started sales in 2018 but has since struggled with black market dealers. Heavy legal taxes increase cannabis product prices, sending customers to look for a better deal on the street.

Such illegal operations are also thought to harm wildlife. Concerns were high as the illegal cultivators have also been stealing water from hydrants, building illicit wells, and dumping toxic waste that contaminates the environment. 

Indisputably, this may harm the rare species that populate Antelope Valley, such as the Mohave ground squirrel, desert tortoise, and the iconic Joshua tree, among others. Illegal growers are decimating tree populations in the valley and polluting streams used by wildlife. 

"There's a lot of important critical species that are out there that need their habitat to thrive and to survive," said Chloe Hakim, a biologist with the state department of fish and wildlife.

Stephen Andrews