Illegal grows create many problems for Anza residents, visitors

Illegal marijuana grows like this one create problems for many Anza residents. Kim Harris photo

Editor’s note; Names of sources are not being used to protect them from their “grower” neighbors in this story on the ongoing problem of illegal marijuana grows in the Anza Valley and surrounding areas.

Everyone has heard the complaints. Social media is full of the cons of the cannabis cultivation that seems to be taking over the valley. Some people are very worried, and with good reason in many cases. Some feel they have had their health, well-being and rights affected by illegal pot “grows” or farms. What exactly are the issues?

Residents complain of odors; the use of illegal and dangerous pesticides; non-permitted grading, construction and wells; light pollution from glowing greenhouses; water and electricity theft; suspicious traffic and a perceived increase in crime.

“The trashy-looking, hastily installed, obviously not permitted old mobile homes, with their haphazard ugly fences and possibly illegally installed utilities that could blow up and cause a fire. The raping of the countryside, illegal grading and ugly scarring of the land. Trash, junk, free-roaming unsocialized dogs that get abandoned when they leave. The anonymous, uncaring, hazardous un-neighborly attitude of the people driving the box trucks on the back roads. The generalized overall deterioration of the family/rancher community spirit of this wonderful town. It is morphing into a blank-faced, stealthy, seedy, ugly, sleazy feeling burg,” said one resident.

There have even been reports of hikers and horseback riders being threatened with violence for wandering too close to large farms.

Thomas Firth, local author and outdoorsman wrote on Facebook: “This is a note located on the Pacific Crest Trail as you approach Anza. The word has spread up and down the trail and some hikers are bypassing us altogether. Instead of sending their resupplies to Camp Anza or the Anza P. O., they are sending them to Idyllwild. It’s kind of sad, I think that this is what we are being known for.”

The note reads, “Water cache 400 yards ahead. If empty, there is a second cache in 2 miles at [mile] 145.4. Local ‘farmers’ are pot growers. They are not friendly to hikers.”

Illegal growing even occurs on the federal and state forests and parks, creating a very dangerous situation for those that go there to enjoy the outdoors. In 2016, authorities removed an estimated 1.1 million cannabis plants from public land in California. About 80 percent of the marijuana that they eradicated was being grown on federal land. This affects people, wildlife, and the often delicate habitats located in these areas. From the use of illegal pesticides, poisoning animals that threaten the plants to the use of dogs that can harass wildlife, there is nothing good about illegal grows on public lands, and Anza’s wilderness is not exempt.

In 1996, Prop. 215 exempted patients and defined caregivers who possess or cultivate marijuana for medical treatment recommended by a physician from criminal laws which otherwise prohibit possession or cultivation of marijuana.

SB 420 passed in 2003 and clarified the scope and application of California Proposition 215. It outlined possession and cultivation limits, created the Medical Marijuana Identification Card Program, authorized the Attorney General to set forth and clarify details concerning possession and cultivation limits and other regulations and recommend modifications to the possession or cultivation limits set forth in the bill. SB 420 also allows counties and cities to establish higher, but not lower, guidelines if they so choose.

After many complaints by people living in the unincorporated areas of Riverside County, the Board of Supervisors passed Ordinance 925, which states the cannabis cultivation in these areas is not allowed, but medical patients are exempted and may grow 12 plants per medical card. Two cards are allowed per occupied property for a total of 24 plants on each property.

Prop 64, approved by voters in November, allows for six plants per person for recreational use, and only six per residence, no matter how many qualified adults are living at the residence.

But there have been documented “busts” of 9,000, 11,000, 15,000 and more individual plants in Anza. These vast grows are not permitted by law, yet they abound in the Anza Valley. Water consumption by these farms is a major issue among people that have been adversely affected by an almost continuous drought in the last decade. It doesn’t help that the large-scale operations “bootleg” well digging, avoiding the permit stage. Non-permitted electrical installations are also made and connected without county permits or safety inspections. If the growers cannot get legal power to the farm, they run noisy diesel generators day and night.

Even local animal rescues have felt the impact of the large grows. Many times, the cultivators come, set up, grow and vanish. They leave behind the guard dogs and sometimes even their puppies. Animal lovers do what they can to help these dogs, but most are poorly socialized and make very unstable pets. Many end up at county facilities to be euthanized. Some fall prey to wild predators.

Landlords take the brunt of the illegal activity. Criminal growers have gutted homes to create the best grow environment for the plants. Carpet is removed, drywall damaged, electrical and plumbing re-routed or ripped out. Heating and AC ducting has been removed or diverted. Repairs for this type of damage runs in the tens of thousands of dollars. This activity is more common in residential housing tracts, yet it has happened on more than one occasion to homes in Anza.

Some illegal growers even steal power by bypassing electrical meters and make off with water, creeping onto private property to fill their 275-gallon IBC totes with someone else’s water.

Law enforcement admits these are difficult times. They try to address the issues, but are limited in a lot of ways, foremost being a lack of resources. In addition, many cannabis laws are confusing and conflicting.

Lt. Paul Bennett of the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department Special Investigations Bureau/Marijuana Enforcement Team (MET) states that he is very aware of the illegal aspects of many of the farms in Anza. Bennett has revealed that the Anza area is getting the majority of MET’s attention so far this year. Many raids are done very quickly and there is rarely a press release regarding these actions, so to the general public, it can seem that nothing is being done.

Law enforcement officials also believe that many of the illegal grows here are run by Mexican and Asian crime cartels, who collect vast amounts of the drug to export to other states.

Code enforcement can also deal with portions of the problem. Non-permitted construction and activities can be reported. Even a greenhouse lit up at night with grow lights is a code violation, due to Ordinance 655 which was placed into effect “to restrict the permitted use of certain light fixtures emitting into the night sky undesirable light rays which have a detrimental effect on astronomical observation and research.” These restrictions are in place to preserve the dark night sky for the Palomar Observatory.

“Our electrical grid here wasn’t designed to handle the usage,” noticed one informed resident. The Anza Electric Co-Op has had to restrict some applications due to the huge drain some customers put on the systems, running lights and commercial well pumps.

The illegal cultivations are normally run by growers who come from out-of-state, even out-of-country. Many really have no desire to be good neighbors.

“It’s not so much our friends and neighbors as it is people who only come here to grow,” said an Anza homeowner.

Legal growers resent the illegal ones creating a bad name for all cannabis cultivators. There is talk of a local coalition being formed to educate the public on what is legal and what is not. It is hoped that this group can become organized and help make a difference in Anza.

One Response to "Illegal grows create many problems for Anza residents, visitors"

  1. Alan Mason   May 7, 2017 at 11:22 am

    A well written and balanced story about the situation. Good job, Diane.


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