California prosecutors back off on punishing cartel marijuana growers who violate environmental laws

Los Angeles County narcotics investigators were unable to convince District Attorney George Gascon or California Attorney General Rob Bonta to file felony charges against members of an international cartel after breaking up the largest illegal marijuana operation in the region’s history.

The month-long operation culminated in 10 days in May when 287 search warrants were served by hundreds of law enforcement officials in a desert north of Los Angeles. They found harvested marijuana worth $1.4 billion along with 40 firearms, including numerous rifles. Authorities arrested 105 people.

Weapons seized in a raid on an illegal marijuana farm outside Los Angeles in May 2022.

Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department

Investigators sought to convince Gascon’s office that felony charges were warranted in this case due to the egregious nature of the agricultural sites. Hazardous pesticides were routinely used on 270,000 plants that have certainly seeped into groundwater, said Lt. Howard Fuchs of the LA County Sheriff’s Department.

The answer was a resounding no.

The sheriff’s department wanted to charge Health and Safety Code Section 11358, a felony, which alleges the suspects violated a water code regarding hazardous runoff using carbofuran. This illegal pesticide immediately kills wildlife up to the size of a bear.

Illegal marijuana farm in Los Angeles.jpg

Harvested marijuana dries at a Los Angeles farm dismantled by law enforcement in May 2022.

Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department

“Our investigators were unable to convince prosecutors to file felony charges,” Fuchs said of Gascon’s satellite office in Antelope Valley, which is on the way to California’s central agricultural belt. the felony section.”

Bonta visited Antelope Valley by helicopter last month to observe the epidemic of illegal marijuana plantations that sprout around the state, sucking water wells, aquifers and other supplies dry during a drought. The recent record-breaking raid was discussed with him in a forum that included other elected officials and law enforcement.

“I told him we tried to classify them as crimes,” Fuchs said. “He was responsive. He listened carefully, took notes and asked questions.”

But there has been no response from Bonta regarding holding the suspects accountable, and so far nothing has happened. Nine people in the group faced felony weapons charges, but the others received citations amounting to traffic tickets. The suspects have been released and are likely looking for a new location to resume operations, Sheriff Alex Villanueva said.


California laws lack teeth when it comes to the commercial cultivation and sale of marijuana. The perpetrators face misdemeanor charges for operating grow sites without state permits and are generally back to business immediately, officials say.

Undaunted, law enforcement destroys their camps and moves on to their next investigation.

Villanueva called the failure to hold the cartels accountable “disturbing”.

“As a life member of the Sierra Club and an environmentalist, I have always done my best to protect the environment,” he said. “There is nothing worse than cartels destroying the environment for profit. It impacts the community in the high desert, the water supply, the environment, the wildlife. Last year we came across bear carcasses that drank contaminated water.

Gascon has a stated policy of downgrading felony charges in many violent crimes, including murder, gang involvement, and sexual assault. He did not respond to a request for comment. As for Bonta, he said in a press release that illicit marijuana growers must be held accountable.


“Illegal grow sites harm our environment and undermine businesses that do things right,” Bonta said. “Together, we are fighting to prevent pollution of our waterways and to ward off illegal and unlicensed activity. I greatly appreciate the work of all of our partners across the state to continue to meet this challenge.”