PHELAN — It was already in the mid-80s early Thursday morning when detectives arrived to the first illegal marijuana grow raid of the day, and the heat only grew more searing by the hour.

Yet none of this seemed to deter the six-man San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department Marijuana Enforcement Team (MET) from their work. They steadily moved through stuffy, pungent grow houses and sheds, cutting down thousands of plants, seemingly immune to it all.

“My daughter already knows what marijuana smells like. I asked her, ‘Baby, how do you know that?'” MET Sgt. Eric Deverec said with a chuckle. “She said, ‘Because that’s what you smell like, Daddy, all the time.'”

The team was hard at work raiding an illegal grow operation at a home in the 13900 block of Pacific Road on Thursday morning — the first of five such illegal operations in the Phelan and Pinon Hills area. The first location yielded over 2,800 plants, Deverec said. The others each had several hundred plants and pounds of processed marijuana.

“Since marijuana was legalized, we’ve seen a lot of misconceptions about it. People think it’s just a free-for-all, but it’s not,” Deverec said, looking over rows of growing pot plants. “There are still laws and rules about it. This is nowhere near legal.”

Deverec became the team’s sergeant about two months ago, according to Sheriff’s spokeswoman Jodi Miller, but he served on the team for several years as a detective previously. As such, he’s seen more than his share of illegal grows all through the county, including Thursday’s, in which the Daily Press was invited to come along.

Three men were found and detained at the first home, and the team detained two others at the second location, a home on the 13600 block of Wilson Ranch Road. Deverec said the men would all be transported to the High Desert Detention Center and booked on suspicion of illegal cultivation of marijuana.

Yet he also acknowledged the seeming futility of arresting the men in the first place. Many detained at MET raids often elude criminal charges, the Daily Press has found while checking through court records.

“We can only do our part of it,” Deverec said. “As long as there is an illegal operation — and under the current law, anything over six plants is illegal — we will continue to conduct these raids, detain these people, and send these charges to the DA’s office. But what happens in the courtroom is not up to us.”

The majority of the people detained — Deverec put the number at somewhere close to 98 percent — have been from Asian countries such as China, Laos, and Cambodia, and it can often be difficult to determine how deeply they’re tied to the operations.

“We are still investigating why they’re here,” Deverec said. “There is a theory these people might be indentured servants, but we’re not sure yet. And there’s often not a whole lot of cooperation. Some of it is the language barrier at times.”

He acknowledged the apparent links between the raids here to the large-scale raids in Northern California, found to have ties to a Chinese crime syndicate, according to the Associated Press. Deverec mentioned coming across workers at illegal grows on San Bernardino National Forest land who were promised money for successful harvests.

“It’s possible we could be seeing something similar here,” Deverec said.

The first location off Pacific Road had been raided for an illegal pot grow the year before, Deverec said. The home was red-tagged by county Code Enforcement. Officials said they may still pursue criminal charges against the property owner once the investigation is through.

Tips from the public often lead the team to illegal grows, Deverec said.

“We often get calls from residents reporting they can smell something, or that their neighbors are never home yet the lights are always on,” Deverec said.

The team was joined by several National Guard members — part of the state’s California Counter-Drug Task Force, Deverec said. The men helped clear the plants, secure the properties, and detain any persons found there.

Many of them, along with the MET members, spoke candidly of their experiences going on these raids. They mentioned the environmental damage forest grows can wreak on nature, and the toxins and black mold found in indoor grows. They spoke of house fires that spread to other homes, sparked by faulty electrical wiring used to power large-scale grows.

When asked what he would say to those who think going after marijuana grows, especially after the drug’s legalization for recreational use in 2016, was pointless, Deverec noted many of the above instances.

“People think this is a waste of time until it affects them,” Deverec said. “I liken it to driving — driving is legal, but there’s still a whole lot of things you can’t do while driving. It’s the same with marijuana.”

All five grow operations remain under investigation. Anyone with information is urged to contact the Sheriff’s Gangs/Narcotics Division at 909-387-8400 or Persons wishing to remain anonymous can contact the We-Tip Hotline at 1-800-782-7463 or online at ?

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