Police in Santa Barbara County, California raided a massive illegal cannabis cultivation site last week, with deputies finding so many illicit plants the enforcement operation took four days to complete. The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office said on Saturday that 350,000 cannabis plants had been destroyed and 20 tons of processed cannabis had been seized from the site.
A two-month investigation into the cultivation operation culminated on June 17 with search warrants being served in northern Santa Barbara County near Buellton and two other sites, one in Santa Maria and another in neighboring San Luis Obispo County, according to Kelley Hoover, a spokeswoman for the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office.
“The cultivation area itself was located on a property of approximately 187 acres of agricultural land, with just over 60 acres of it being used for the commercial cultivation of cannabis,” Hoover said. “From the initial investigation, it appeared the site was used to continually cultivate cannabis throughout the year, and at the time of the search, approximately 40 acres was presently growing, with a large amount having been recently harvested.”
Multiple Agencies Participate in Raid
Deputies from the sheriff’s office, including members of its Cannabis Compliance Team, were assisted in the eradication operation by the county District Attorney’s Office, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the Army National Guard Counter Drug Task Force. In all, 35 detectives, investigators, and wildlife officers took part in the raid, Hoover said.
“This investigation was the result of complaints from the public, tips, and information provided to the sheriff’s Cannabis Compliance Team,” Hoover noted.
The sheriff’s office has not released the name of the owner of the property where the marijuana cultivation site was located and has not yet located or made contact with the owner, according to media reports.
Authorities are investigating if a license to cultivate cannabis on the property had been obtained from the state fraudulently and if illegal cannabis sales have occurred. Hoover said that the case has been referred to the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s office for possible criminal charges.
Are Licensed Cultivators Operating Illegally?
To gain permission from the county to cultivate cannabis, which is required to obtain a license from the state, applicants had to file an affidavit that stipulated the site had been used to grow medical marijuana prior to January 16, 2016. However, there were no requirements to provide documentation or otherwise prove the claim made on the affidavit.
That loophole left the system ripe for abuse, according to a report from the Los Angeles Times. One area resident, Blair Pence, said the fields next to his winery were used to grow bell peppers until 2018, two years after operators claimed they were cultivating marijuana on the site. Now, there are 30 acres of cannabis growing on the property.
“These guys are all lying through their teeth,” Pence said.
Jacqueline McGowan, the director of local licensing and business development at K Street Consulting in Sacramento, told High Times in an email that some licensed cannabis operators in Santa Barbara County may, in fact, be operating illegally.
“If some of the county’s current cultivators signed this affidavit under penalty of perjury, and they did in fact lie and no prior cultivation had occurred, then the Sheriff may be in the right here when eradicating these licensed operations,” McGown said. “I would interpret that document to mean that if you had been cultivating prior to January 19, 2019, you would be allowed to continue cultivating under that identical footprint. However, any expansion would be prohibited unless the county expressly allowed it.”