Wonder Valley Special Community Meeting on Public Safety and Marijuana Grows was held via Zoom on Wednesday, January 13, 2021.
Attendees (alphabetical order): Patrick Bailey, Joseph Barrett, Jeffrey Barrett, Cathryn Beeks, Jim Brakebill, Evan Brosowsky, Michael Brown, Sam Charters, Julie Dole, Sunny Downer, Peter Gilstrap, David Greene, Kelly Hake, Lyn Healy, Grey Hill, Florrie Holloway, Steve Jensen, Isul Kim, Ellie Kordas, Eric Lenz, Larry LeVoir, Mark Lundquist, Arnold Martinez-Lenz, Luke Niles, Paul Nugent, Sally Nugent, Remo Packer, Zandria Petteway, Anthony Quniones, Steve Reyes, Cheri Reyes, Nancy Riley, Dan Riley, Max Rossi, Olympia Rossi, Jennifer Ruff, Ben Schafer, Brian Schirk, Georgene Shelton, Kate Short, Ken Sitz, Randy Smith, Lanny Swerdlow, Alexander Tarnas, Deborah Tobin, Gary Tutfel, Michael Walker, Elizabeth Wheeler, Burt Wisotzkey, Natalie Zuk
The 5 pm meeting got a late start (5:22 PM) due to technical difficulties caused by a San Bernardino County (SBC) firewall upgrade that prevented Sheriff Captain Luke Niles from connecting directly through the Zoom application. The impromptu solution was for Captain Niles to conduct his presentation and Q&A session via speaker phone (thanks Cheri for the quick thinking!)
Late last Summer Supervisor Dawn Rowe and SBC Sheriff John McMahon met and it was decided to assemble a dedicated special marijuana/cannabis cultivation enforcement team with patrol staff deputies given up from every station. This team operated from September 12, 2020 through January 1, 2021 with 300 search warrants served across the Morongo Basin, Lucerne and Apple Valley. 77 search warrants were served in the Morongo Basin including the target-rich areas of Wonder Valley, East 29 Palms, and Landers. Total count: 300 arrests, 21 felony cases and 272 misdemeanors.
The cannabis enforcement team still exists and still working. Reassigned deputies have had to return to fill in the gaps in patrol service due to COVID among deputies, and 3 more search warrants were served today (1/13/2021). Currently there are 85 grows on the target list with 31 in the greater Wonder Valley area.
Recent laws (County ordinance on cannabis cultivation) make cultivation a lesser crime and that mean more work to obtain search warrants (usually need a felony to obtain a search warrant). We need lots of surveillance and quantities and have to go to a special judge who grants a search warrant on a misdemeanor.
We continue to plug away on this problem and Supervisor Dawn and Sheriff are working on creating an expanded cannabis team in the next few months. It's still going to take some time to get them all but our maximum effort is concentrated in the Morongo Basin. Currently there are equal or more grows in the area between North Joshua Tree and Johnson Valley and we're getting 4-5 per day. Despite this effort, every week sees another 3 ones generated. Currently we've had to refocus patrol efforts back from illegal cannabis cultivation enforcement to patrol tasks due to an increase in Part 1 crimes (homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft and arson).
In our operations against the grows we've come across the use of harsh chemicals that are damaging the ground and in one case we had a human traffic case (an juvenile was out of state was involved).
QUESTIONS & ANSWERS
Michael Brown: How can we take the prosecution of cultivation out of law enforcement in San Bernardino County?
Captain Niles: The cannabis cultivation ordinance is normally enforced by County Code Enforcement but this cultivation has little to do with our market here. The main cause, land is cheap and water cheaper here than West of us. The product is transported to counties where cultivation is legal but it is still black market. It's not a matter of legal or not here, but cheap land and product finding it's way to counties where its legal but is purchased until the table, i.e. the black market.
Remo Packer: We're concerned about the grow operations using pesticides and chemicals and their well use, tapping our aquifer. #1, are the pesticides and chemicals draining back into the aquifer and #2, Can we approach enforcement this way? It's a genuine concern for all of us.
Captain Niles: The team is sometimes accompanied by State Fish & Game experts along with BLM rangers and this was their focus. They will add additional charges to land owners when it's warranted. This State and Federal support is much appreciated and we don't know yet about impacts on the aquifer but we do now they (pesticides, chemicals) are not good and result in what they call 'soiled ground.'
Evan Browsowsky: Does Code Enforcement even go along with the team to cite growers on structural issues? The police presence on Amboy Road is another effective enforcement against growers' vehicles.
Captain Niles: The CHP (California Highway Patrol) does a good job patrolling and assisting us and we have good communication with the Morongo Basin's Eric Lee. [The police presence at the WV Fire Station/Community Center is staffed by the CHP on a rotating basis and is separate from the SBC Sheriff Department]. Code Enforcement is short handed and strapped with calls on illegal grows, campground, etc. When available they do come with the team and identify issues and issue citations. The sheriff deputies also take photos at the grow and send them to Code Enforcement for follow-up investigations and citations.
David Greene: There is a nest of growers, 5-6, getting more aggressive with backhoes and building berms on Screech Owl between Blower and Wilson. There is obvious coordination of efforts and I wonder about shell owners. Lots of water trucks going to town. Can we monitor this? Twentynine Palms is making bank on the water - are there records we could access? And real estate agents play a role in this, with buyers paying cash for properties. Can we look at the real estate agents who facilitate these selling?
Captain Niles: Excellent points and they do not go unnoticed. Regarding real estate agents, recent California legislation intended to prevent discrimination prevents real estate agents from communicating with deputies. Earlier, utility companies can't communicate with law enforcement without a judge signed search warrant, and we can't information about whether a felony is being performed (re theft of utilities). The digging of berms is a new theme and one in Johnson Valley was 45 feet deep! You couldn't see it except from the air. It's definitely a destruction of the natural landscape and I expect some Fish & Game enforcement down the road. Regarding communicating with the water tender drivers, we have a lack of resources to devote to this and when we have given them attention they've altered their routes.
In general, for information gathering about grows, we need community members to communicate, and I ask you to communicate with me, Captain Niles, ideally via email [See end of notes]. Returning to coordination, yes, there's 100% coordination and we do record search for recent land purchases and do go back out afterwards. Property owners get citations and persons present get a different citation.Property owners may lease to phantom LLC companies but the owners will get cited and individual at the grows are many times undocumented.
Zandria Petteway: Can we get ICE (federal agency Immigration Customs Enforcement) involved in enforcement?
Captain Niles: No. Californian Proposition 54 makes it illegal for loaw enforcement to work with ICE with the exception of human trafficking. The recent incident was an undocumented juvenile who was a human trafficking victims and we communicated with ICE.
Jennifer Ruff: Understaffed and undermanned. Would it be better to contact State and Federal? State Cannabis Board and the DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency)?
Captain Niles: Wonderful points! The Bureau of Cannabis Control is locally headed by a good friend and former Sergeant here. Store front dispensaries, that's their main charge. For Federal interest, there would have to be enormous quantities at any site to draw their assets to it. How large? 4,000 plants - we did several sites close to the 10,000 mark. Federal enforcement is associated with honey, labs, etc. When grows are being constructed here, share this information even if plants are not present. Might get lucky if someone is available, we'd contact the contractors, obtain a search warrant earlier. Don't get frustrated - when I can we'll send out a deputy.
Lanny Swerdlow: State Proposition 64 legalized and added regulation for cannabis. If San Bernardino County legalized cultivation like Riverside County, it would just be illegal, unlicensed businesses that needed regulation and enforcement. The city of Adelanto is permitting cannabis businesses and reaping the rewards in fees generated.
Captain Niles: Reality is somewhere in between. I know you're very passionate about this and I don't discount some of the points you make but legalization is always accompanied by a black market. Doing nothing causes problems, and taxing causes problems.
Ben Schafer: Coordination between grow operations, multiple owners, is their an estimation of the coordination? Any profile? Seems very large, very professional out here.
Captain Niles: There are property owners out of Las Vegas that bought land in Wonder Valley for the product to go to Arizona and Nevada. Property owners from San Diego up to Los Angeles, but not massive cartels, more individual entrepreneurs.
Ellie Kordes: Is there are correlation between the rise in crime in Wonder Valley and the grows? Robberies and growers, driving growers out of business, causation?
Captain Niles: There's no significant correlation between burglaries and grows. Some traffic accidents. Some crimes related, an unknown individual attempted to rob a grow, but as a whole, no, not based on the information we have.
Lyn Healy: 300 arrests, 272 misdemeanors - what happens?
Captain Niles: Individual is issued a citation, a misdemeanor ticket to respond to court for misdemeanor cultivation, with possible $500 fine. Due to COVID, court dates to appear within 90 days (would have been in February) have now been extended and pushed out to 180 days.
Julie Dole: Riverside has the same problems even with legalization, crime and honey houses as shipping flowers is expensive. We need to look at 'mules' hauling water. Cut off utilities if that's in your quiver. Honey houses is where it's at. Solutions - water mules, and focus on tangential problems, a 'broken windows' approach. Measure K passed - get some of that money!
Captain Niles: All wonderful suggestions. Thank you.
Alexander Tarnes: Are the growers violent? Are any people stuck there being abused?
Captain Niles: On the Wonder Valley side law enforcement has not met with much violence nor are we aware of violence between grows and anyone else. In Landers and Johnson Valley there has been multiple shooting at grow sites with robbers attempting to rob grows and protectors shot. Are these isolated incidents? But there's no significant violence in Wonder Valley.
Steve Reyes thanked Captain Niles for his time and adjourned the meeting at 6:49 p.m.
If anyone has information on illegal grows in their neighborhood that they wish to share with Captain Niles, he can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His phone number is 760-366-4175, but email is best.