Fresno County combats illegal grows

FSO, DEA and other agencies crack down on gangs trafficking in illegal weed

farmer planting his marijuana crop
Darren Fraser
Published November 28, 2023  • 
1:00 pm

FRESNO COUNTY – Despite the fact California legalized the use of recreational marijuana seven years ago, the illegal cultivation and sale of the plant continues to be a problem for Fresno County law enforcement officials.

According to a press release from the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office (FSO), drug trafficking organizations, including Mexican drug cartels, Chinese organized criminal operations, Laotian and Cambodian organized crime groups and outlaw motorcycle gangs are behind the illegal activity. These groups also traffic in methamphetamines, heroin, cocaine, psilocybin mushrooms and fentanyl.

77,000 LIVE CANNABIS PLANTS ERADICATED

To date, this year, FSO – working with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the Counterdrug Task Force/California Military Department, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture – have eradicated 77,000 live cannabis plants in Fresno County. The multi agency effort, named Operation Sentinel, has resulted in the seizure of:

  • 2,600 pounds of processed cannabis at various cultivation locations;
  • 1 pound of concentrated cannabis;
  • 8,000 pounds of growing psilocybin mushrooms;
  • 70 pounds of processed psilocybin mushrooms;
  • 1 ounce of cocaine; and
  • $44,000 in cash.

Fifty-five search warrants were issued during the operation, leading to 32 arrests related to narcotic sales and illegal cultivation of marijuana.

FSO’s Drug Enforcement Agency also conducted its own activities, including patrol stops and ongoing investigations. The agency also assisted on multiple cannabis-related offenses. As a result, FSO seized:

  • 600 pounds of processed cannabis;
  • 1,300 pounds of harvested cannabis plants;
  • 300 pounds of THC vape pens and cartridges;
  • 150 pounds of concentrated cannabis which was packaged for sale; and
  • $20,000 as evidence with cannabis products possessed for sale.

WHERE IS THE WEED GOING?

Janice Mackey is an information officer for the CDFW’s Cannabis Program. According to her, illegal marijuana typically is sold in states back east where there is a premium on California grown cannabis.

“And it’s sold in illegal dispensaries in California too,” Mackey said. She added, “Many (illegal dispensaries) operate out in the open and can look like legitimate businesses.”

Despite the fact marijuana is legal in the state, most cities and counties – including Fresno County – continue to outlaw cannabis retail operations. According to the Cannabis Times, 61% of California cities and counties do not allow cannabis dispensaries to operate within their boundaries. 

According to Forbes, as of last September, California had 1,000 legal dispensaries for 40 million residents.

UNIFIED CANNABIS ENFORCEMENT TASK FORCE

The California Department of Cannabis Control (DCC) cracks down on illegal cannabis through its enforcement arm, the Unified Cannabis Enforcement Task Force (UCETF), which is co-chaired by the DCC and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

According to the DCC, during the 3rd quarter of 2023, the UCETF seized more than $101 million in illegal cannabis. The task force seized 69 firearms linked to crimes – which is a 363% increase compared to the second quarter – executed 60 search warrants and destroyed over 61,000 pounds of illegal cannabis flower.

On the DCC website, Bill Jones, Chief of the Law Enforcement Division for DCC, said, “As the DCC Law Enforcement Division focuses on illegal indoor cultivations, unlicensed dispensaries and unlicensed manufacturing and distribution operations, the multi-agency, cross-jurisdictional approach of UCETF allows us to leverage the expertise of each participating department to disrupt a broader scope of illegal businesses.”

To combat illegal cannabis cultivation, the DEA created the Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program (DCE/SP). The program was started in California and Hawaii in 1979; by 1982, the program included 25 states. 

According to the DEA, in 2022, DCE/SP was responsible for the eradication of 4,435,859 outdoor plants and 1,245,890 indoor plants. The program also netted over 2,800 weapons from growers.

DCE/SP lends support and provides resources to 115 state and local law enforcement agencies that participate in the program.

Darren Fraser
Reporter