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Ag land target of marijuana grow raids

POSTED September 27, 2012 2:54 p.m.

A campaign to rid large-scale marijuana growing on Central Valley agricultural land has resulted in numerous arrests and the seizure of cash, guns, and drugs, the U.S. Attorney’s Office announced Wednesday.

Dubbed Operation Mercury, the campaign has targeted agricultural land in the counties of Merced, Madera, Kings, Tulare, Kern and Fresno. Beginning in March 2012 to the present, Operation Mercury has resulted in 71 federal defendants charged and three federal defendants convicted and sentenced to prison. Sixty-six federal search warrants resulted in the seizure of 120,598 plants, 1,509 pounds of processed marijuana, 32 firearms, and $4,869 cash.

The combined federal and local eradication and enforcement efforts of Operation Mercury have resulted in an overall seizure of more than 400,000 marijuana plants, primarily from agricultural lands; more than 100 firearms; and more than 175 total arrests. Investigations are ongoing, and the numbers are expected to increase, said Department of Justice spokesperson Lauren Horwood.

“Operation Mercury targeted large-scale marijuana grows operating on the Central Valley’s highly productive farmlands resulting in significant seizures and numerous arrests. This operation should send a clear message that marijuana cultivation and distribution remain illegal under federal law,” stated Drug Enforcement Agency Special Agent in Charge Anthony D. Williams. “The success of this operation would not have been possible without the support of our state and local law enforcement counterparts in these communities.”

As enforcement efforts on marijuana grown on public lands increased, a number of counties on the southern end of the Central Valley reported an increase in marijuana grown on agricultural land, Horwood said. During 2011, more than 110 agricultural grow sites were identified in Fresno County, and another 60 sites were identified in Madera County. From 500 to several thousand plants were being grown on these sites. Kern County reported numerous agricultural grows that had improvised booby traps installed along with the plants.

“Much of the marijuana cultivated in large commercial operations in the Central Valley is being shipped to other states,” said United States Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner. “This office, in partnership with local law enforcement, remains firmly committed to enforcing the Controlled Substances Act and will vigorously enforce prohibitions against cultivation and distribution of marijuana.”

According to the DOJ, many of the large-scale marijuana growing operations targeted brought additional crime and nuisances to the area. Horwood cited armed guards in watch towers, confrontations between marijuana growers and legitimate farmers, and dozens of individuals observed living in huts in fields, as some of the problems. There has also been a corresponding increase in armed robberies and violence near and in the grow sites, Horwood said.

While California’s medical marijuana law allows for a regulated growth of marijuana for personal use and prescribed by a doctor, the use and growing of marijuana is still illegal under federal law. Cultivation and distribution of marijuana are felony crimes under the federal Controlled Substances Act. It is also a felony for a property owner to rent, lease or otherwise make a place available for the cultivation or distribution of marijuana. Violations can result in imprisonment and a fine up to $500,000 or a civil penalty of $250,000 or twice the gross receipts, whichever is greater. In addition to criminal and civil penalties, property being used to cultivate or distribute marijuana may be forfeited to the United States without compensation.

Operation Mercury was carried out by federal agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement-Homeland Security Investigations , Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Game, special agents from the California Department of Justice, wardens from the California Department of Fish and Game, officers of the California National Guard, and detectives and deputy sheriffs from the Sheriff’s Departments of Fresno, Kern, Kings, Madera, Merced, and Tulare Counties. Assistance was also provided by agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Criminal Investigation Division. Assistant United States Attorneys Kevin Rooney, Karen A. Escobar, Laurel Montoya, Kimberly Sanchez, Kathleen Servatius, and Elana Landau are prosecuting the federal cases.

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