Whenever news breaks about local law enforcement busting a large-scale illegal marijuana grow in Yuba-Sutter, some people question why so many resources are being spent on pot seizures, rather than on other crimes.

After all, California now has recreational use marijuana.

But for law enforcement, the simple, short answer is because it’s the law.

[related_articles location=”left” show_article_date=”false” article_type=”automatic-primary-section” curated_ids=””]”Why do we enforce the law? Because that’s our job,” said Sutter County Sheriff J. Paul Parker. “Lawmakers can change the law as they wish to, and they have changed it for things like personal possession for personal use.

“That’s fine, but what they didn’t do is change the law for large-scale commercial operations that sell the product across the country and make a bunch of undeclared money. We aren’t arresting people with a few plants for personal use.”

Parker said if the law changed tomorrow, so would the department’s policy. But until that happens, local law enforcement will do everything in its power to stop illegal growers in their tracks, otherwise the problem could spiral out of control.

“It would be the same thing as if we didn’t investigate bank robberies. More people would most likely be coming here to rob our banks,” Parker said.

Recreational marijuana proponent Angelique Perez of Two Chix Garden Supply in Marysville said she looks at the issue in two ways. On one hand, she said, there are people just trying to make a living. On the other hand, there are some bad apples ruining it for the rest.

“I’m not OK with illegal grows at all, but I do have a level of understanding, only because people have been doing this to survive for a long time,” Perez said.

The problem for Perez is when she sees good people being treated as if they are one of the bad apples.

“Yes, there are good and bad players, but we need to be focusing more on the bad players, as in the gangs and the cartels that are coming into the county,” she said.

She said local counties should adopt new ordinances allowing outdoor cultivation so the Yuba-Sutter area doesn’t get stuck “behind the times.”

“Prop 64 passed, and we have to acknowledge that it’s what the majority of California’s residents wanted,” Perez said. “That might not have been the case in Yuba County, but people are saying they want regulation, which would help get rid of the bad players and to make it a safe place for the rest of us.”

Environmental impacts

One negative impact is what large-scale marijuana grows are doing to the environment, said Pat McGrath, Yuba County district attorney.

“Unless you’ve been to one of these grow sites, it’s really hard to appreciate the impacts it has,” McGrath said.

More often than not, McGrath said, growers at large-scale sites use highly toxic pesticides, insecticides and rodenticides extensively and totally off-label. The chemicals are intended to keep animals and insects away from the plant.

McGrath said marijuana is a thirsty plant, which is why growers have dammed and diverted water from rivers and creeks illegally. He said in general, large-scale illegal growers focus on geographical features — an isolated area that can be accessed with a reliable water source. Areas like the foothills in Yuba County fit that mold, but McGrath said it’s also happening throughout the rest of the state.

“It’s the worst when you have people living on-site, creating trash and human waste, often times really close to a water source. So everything they are using, in terms of hazardous materials, is drifting into that water source and affecting anyone downstream of that,” McGrath said. “When it comes to these commercial grow sites, there is a huge environmental impact that many people don’t understand or appreciate.”

Public safety

Using the chemicals off-label also brings about other consequences for the people handling them, like toxic exposures. In a commercial setting, he said those types of risks would be eliminated through regulations, but when the business is off the books, people are using them in an unsafe manner.

Yuba County is no stranger to finding growers that are part of larger organizations, like with Mexican cartels that have been found to be involved in large-scale operations with thousands of plants in the region. With that comes a risk to the public, said Yuba County Supervisor Randy Fletcher, the elected official for the foothills area.

“You have to be concerned for the average citizen that might be out on a walk and accidentally stumbles onto a grow site,” Fletcher said. “They could find themselves in harm’s way very quickly if they run into some of these groups that are potentially armed with fully automatic weapons. All of this you have to take into consideration.”

Just this last week, the Yuba County Sheriff’s Office busted a grow site near New Bullards Bar hidden in the forest. More than 3,500 plants were seized, four people — including one juvenile — were arrested, and more than 500 pounds of trash was destroyed.

But McGrath said in the past 10 to 15 years, there have been more and more relatively smaller grows popping up, with maybe only hundreds of plants. Still, law enforcement has learned to use new technologies to stop their spread.

“You can cruise Google Earth now. Look at the foothills and count all the places that have grow sites. It’s easy to do, and the grow sites stand out like a sore thumb,” McGrath said.

At least within Yuba County, there have been numerous grows found in populated areas — Edgewater, Plumas Lake, and a warehouse at the Yuba County Airport — over the past several months. Homes have been completely converted to grows, thousands of plants in each, large amounts of cash and firearms have all been discovered this year within the county.

Sutter County Supervisor Larry Munger said it’s been a little over a year since there has been a big marijuana bust in Sutter County. Still he said law enforcement stays active in trying to take large-scale grows down when they find them.

“For those that are trying to grow under the radar, there’s big money in it, but it’s just a matter of time before there is a shootout or something that puts the public at risk,” Munger said. “Our main thing is keeping it controlled, because it was getting out of hand.”

State plans

McGrath said California lawmakers are trying to figure out policies regarding chemical use in the cultivation of marijuana, but nothing has been approved, as of yet.

“The hope is, with legal and regulated commercial activity, you aren’t going to have the problems that we’ve talked about. That’s the goal,” McGrath said.

Fletcher said due to the current uncertainty in the state with plans to regulate commercial marijuana, Yuba County plans on waiting to see what happens in other communities before any big changes are made to its ordinance.

“We are still, clearly, in limbo in all of this,” Fletcher said. “There are many more questions than there are answers, and as a result we put communities in jeopardy in picking the wrong path. I think it’s got years until it plays out. I don’t see a solution being found by Jan. 1. No matter what they do, there are still issues.”

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