Violence Plagues California’s Illicit Cannabis Market, Deals Gone Wrong Prove Deadly

Violence Plagues California’s Illicit Cannabis Market, Deals Gone Wrong Prove Deadly

Firearm seized by the Mendocino County Sheriff's Department during raids of illegal cannabis grow sites in Northern California. (Courtesy of the Mendocino County Sheriff's Department)

Travis Gillmore

Travis Gillmore

2/13/2024

Updated: 2/13/2024

After six people were found murdered in the California desert last month following a dispute involving illegal marijuana, law enforcement officials across the state are warning of dangers associated with the illicit market.
“It’s not your mom-and-pop shops, it’s all black market, big business, or the cartel organizations, criminal organizations that are doing this,” San Bernardino Sheriff Shannon Dicus told The Epoch Times. “Or we wouldn’t be seeing the murders like [this].”
A 911 call on Jan. 23 resulted in the discovery of six individuals shot to death in the high desert of eastern San Bernardino County. Police found evidence of illicit marijuana dealing at the scene of the crime, and five of the bodies were burned.
While the burning was potentially a method of covering up evidence, the sheriff said that the staging and condition of the bodies suggested the scene was meant as a warning to other would-be competitors or thieves.
“We need to realize that they’re sending a message: This is our territory,” Mr. Dicus said. “And I think that piece of it is glossed over.”
With hundreds of illegal cannabis farms spread across the county—fewer than the thousands that peppered the desert just a few years ago—he said bodies have been found on numerous occasions dumped on or near grow sites.
Residents and law enforcement officers have also experienced violence when driving near some marijuana farms, he said, as overzealous guards hired for illegal grows threaten vehicles approaching their operations.
“We’ve had citizens call in and report to us that they were assaulted or accosted just because they were driving down a dirt road where one of these grows is present,” Mr. Dicus said.
The Merced County Sheriff’s Department in California discovered several human trafficking victims living in “horrible” conditions and working as apparent indentured laborers at an illegal marijuana grow operation in Merced, Calif., on July 26, 2023. (Courtesy of Merced County Sheriff’s Department)

The Merced County Sheriff’s Department in California discovered several human trafficking victims living in “horrible” conditions and working as apparent indentured laborers at an illegal marijuana grow operation in Merced, Calif., on July 26, 2023. (Courtesy of Merced County Sheriff’s Department)

He additionally said some of his deputies, just out on regular patrol, have had rounds shot at them through their windshields if they drive too close to a grow site.
Known for cannabis production for decades, illegal farming is nothing new to the Golden State, but experts suggest the scale and level of violence changed after voters approved a 2016 ballot measure legalizing recreational marijuana.
“They basically sprung up overnight after Proposition 64 ... [it] is what opened the floodgates for the black market,” he said. “There are no teeth in this criminally, and that’s why it expanded.”
Of particular concern to law enforcement experts is Prop. 64’s lessening illegal cultivation of cannabis from a felony to a misdemeanor.

Prices Crashed While Robberies Skyrocketed

Such fueled more illicit growing and invited a more dangerous criminal element into the mix, according to some sheriffs and district attorneys from across the state.
“Things were not like they are now,” Matt Kendall, Mendocino County sheriff, told The Epoch Times. “Something happened after the state started this realignment, and things just went off the rails.”
Since the law was changed, the price per pound for illegal marijuana has crashed from about $1,000 per pound to as low as $100. With the drop in price, farmers have scaled up significantly to sustain and grow revenues.
Furthermore, lessening profits have increased the number of robberies, according to law enforcement experts and industry insiders.
“It becomes much more lucrative to steal it than to cultivate it,” Mr. Kendall said.
Help is needed from the Legislature before things become more dangerous and difficult to contain, he said.
“The state of California always seems to build the aircraft midflight,” Mr. Kendall said. “And if you’re going to build it midflight, you should probably pay attention to the people in the back who are saying the tail is falling off.”
Mendocino County, known as part of the Emerald Triangle—made up of three counties including Humboldt and Trinity famous for cannabis growing—is experiencing increased levels of violence, according to county records.
Citing recent statistics, the sheriff estimated murders related to illegal marijuana now account for about 50 percent of the homicides in the county.
“Over the years, we have found a lot of bodies,” Mr. Kendall said.
Several were discovered headless, and others were dumped or buried in and around grow sites around the county, he said.
Illegal commercial cannabis operation showing unpermitted land clearing, water tanks, and greenhouses, as seen from above during a raid by the Mendocino County Sheriff's Department. (Courtesy of the Mendocino County Sheriff's Department)

Illegal commercial cannabis operation showing unpermitted land clearing, water tanks, and greenhouses, as seen from above during a raid by the Mendocino County Sheriff's Department. (Courtesy of the Mendocino County Sheriff's Department)

“We’ve got armed people running around terrorizing neighborhoods, and everybody’s afraid to say anything,” he said.
Rumors of cartels in the area have persisted for years, with locals openly discussing fear and anxiety over the large-scale operations seen in the hills.
Regular target practice at night is used to inform would-be thieves of well-armed guards, several residents told The Epoch Times.
One law enforcement official, speaking anonymously, said cartel-run operations have increased significantly since the passage of Prop. 64, with two families dominating the illicit market in Northern California.

Illegal Immigrant Labor Trafficking

Sheriff Kendall agrees that organized criminal organizations are playing a role in the market and in human trafficking crimes, starting miles south at the U.S.-Mexico border.
“All of our intelligence says that the cartels control the border,” Mr. Kendall said. “To get across the border, a lot of these people enter into indentured slavery to work off a debt.”
Across the state, tales of human trafficking include those where people are promised lucrative payoffs at the end of the growing season, which are not fulfilled.
One such case saw a grower from Kneeland, California, in unincorporated Humboldt County murder one of his workers and attempt to kill another after they completed their work.
The defendant, Mikal Wilde used immigrants “to work on his marijuana grow in the belief that they were expendable, not in a position to complain and that they might not be missed if they disappeared forever into the woods of Humboldt County,” prosecutors said in charging documents. “[He] preyed on their status and viewed them as free labor that could not stand up to him.”
Ultimately convicted of six felony crimes, the killer was sentenced to life plus 35 years in federal prison.
Some deaths also occur due to dangerous working and living conditions. Generators run inside so-called hoop houses—makeshift greenhouses made with PVC pipe and plastic sheeting—and have caused numerous deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning, with migrant workers bodies subsequently dumped, sheriffs said.
But still, most fatalities related to the illicit market, however, are the result of foul play, according to officials.
Five active homicide investigations related to illegal cannabis are ongoing in Siskiyou County, according to Sheriff Jeremiah LaRue.
“The violence has increased substantially,” Mr. LaRue told The Epoch Times. “A lot of it is drug deals gone bad.”
He described a situation in 2020 when three individuals came to the county to purchase illegal marijuana and ended up in a shootout with sellers that resulted in a fatality and multiple injuries.
“Violent crime, human trafficking ... we’re seeing this daily,” Mr. LaRue said.
Like other law enforcement experts, he said the problem originated with Prop. 64.
“It’s a total trainwreck,” Mr. LaRue said. “The whole system is compromised.”
A container of Methamphidophos, a banned and severely restricted pesticide not allowed in the United States, found on an illegal cannabis grow site in Mendocino County, California. (Courtesy of the Mendocino County Sheriff's Department)

A container of Methamphidophos, a banned and severely restricted pesticide not allowed in the United States, found on an illegal cannabis grow site in Mendocino County, California. (Courtesy of the Mendocino County Sheriff's Department)

Industry Insiders Tell Horror Stories

Growers, both legal and illegal, agree with the sheriffs that the system is failing to produce effective results—like regulating the industry yet allowing producers and consumers to benefit—while jeopardizing public safety.
A cultivator and broker from the Bay Area who chose not to participate in the legal market said he’s made more money as a result but has seen the risk of robbery increase in recent years.
“It’s wild out here, people are getting tied up for their pounds,” the middle-aged man, who asked to remain anonymous, told The Epoch Times. “We’ve had our spot broken into twice in the last year, and it’s not like we can ask the police for help.”
Sheriffs report similar stories, saying they’ve heard “third-hand” accounts of robberies and violent encounters. Oftentimes victims choose not to report incidents out of fear of criminal liability for participating in illegal activity.
One robbery victim told The Epoch Times that he feared for his life when gunmen stormed his illegal cannabis grow in a warehouse in Oakland.
“They couldn’t get the door open, and they thought I had it locked and kept telling me they were going to kill me if I wouldn’t open it,” the man, who asked for anonymity, told The Epoch Times. “But they eventually got it open and took everything I have.”
Another victim who was targeted by armed robbers said he felt relieved to be alive considering the number of deaths that have occurred in similar situations.
“I lost hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of cash and products, and I lost friends in the process that felt wronged because I got robbed,” the person, who asked for anonymity, told The Epoch Times. “But at least I’m alive. When I got pushed down to the concrete and felt the gun on my head, I thought it was the end.”

Lives at Stake

The recent murders brought attention to a trend that has persisted for years across California.
Seven people were shot to death in 2020 on an illegal cannabis operation in Aguanga, California—a small town north of San Diego. No arrests were made, but officials seized 1,000 pounds of marijuana and several hundred plants from the location.
Law enforcement lives are in danger because of inadequate protection from the state, according to experts, who point to limited legal consequences for criminals and past incidents as evidence that more needs to be done.
A cannabis growing operation in the Santa Ynez Valley northwest of Santa Barbara, Calif., on Aug. 6, 2019. (David McNew/AFP via Getty Images)

A cannabis growing operation in the Santa Ynez Valley northwest of Santa Barbara, Calif., on Aug. 6, 2019. (David McNew/AFP via Getty Images)

El Dorado County Sheriff’s Deputy Brian Ishmael was killed by a grower on an illegal farm in a rural part of the county in 2019 while responding to a 911 call about the possible theft of plants.
Most victims of violence related to the illegal trade, however, are those involved in cultivation and distribution, according to court records.
In 2021, three people in San Bernardino ordered one pound of marijuana—worth less than $1,000 at the time—and killed the person who delivered it.
“These violent individuals clearly have no regard for life,” Christopher Bombardiere, Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms Los Angeles Field Division special agent in charge, said in a press release announcing sentencing for the three individuals responsible for the crime. “In this instance, greed outweighed humanity.”
Robbery is a primary motive in many of the situations, with both licensed and unlicensed growers and sellers targeted by thieves.
Tech investor and millionaire Tushar Atre was kidnapped from his home in 2019 and taken to his licensed farm in the mountains near Santa Cruz where he was later found dead with his hands bound by zip ties, stabbed, and shot in the back of the head. Two former employees who worked on his farm, and two other defendants, are awaiting trial for the crime.
With murders on the rise while the legal cannabis market struggles to survive, experts are looking to lawmakers for solutions.
Several proposals are under consideration in the California Legislature this year to enforce civil penalties for illegal cannabis cultivators, but others suggest more criminal consequences are needed.
“Nobody is listening to us when we say this is dangerous, this is criminal,” Mendocino County Sheriff Kendall said. “The law needs more teeth to be effective.”
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Travis Gillmore

Travis Gillmore

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Travis Gillmore is an avid reader and journalism connoisseur based in California covering finance, politics, the State Capitol, and breaking news for The Epoch Times.

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