Local authorities say they've seen a sharp rise in large-scale pot farms. Last year, investigators identified more than 100 outdoor sites and now they're working with the federal government to end the growing operations.
Federal and local law enforcement gathered at the Fresno County Farm Bureau Thursday morning to announce a major crackdown on commercial marijuana operations in the Valley. "Rather than growing marijuana in the relative secrecy and anonymity afforded by remote public lands, many moved illicit operations on private agriculture lands," said Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims. Local agencies joined U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner with a stern message to marijuana growers - the cultivation and sale of pot is illegal under the federal government, even if it's for medical purposes.
State law allows cultivation of the crop for medical reasons but investigators say they've seen an increase in large-scale pot grows being used for profit and illegal activity. Federal agents are now stepping in to prosecute growers. "We are pursuing these cases, we're going to be devoting civil forfeiture authority to this effort in a way we have never done before. So we're not going to be able to prosecute every grower out there but I think we're going to take on enough cases to make an impact on this problem," said Benjamin Wagner.
The last major pot bust in Fresno County occurred last summer on a field that is now empty. Investigators seized more than 3,000 marijuana plants. "You could smell it, I mean it was really bad," said Steve Roberto. Roberto feels safer now without the illegal activity across his home. But at the time, he worried for his family's safety so he got a guard dog. "As a person who has seen first-hand a pot grow next to his home and a pot grow in a community, I can tell you it's a very negative thing," said Roberto.
Farmers like Roberto say they are glad the federal government is stepping in to stop the cultivation and prosecute marijuana growers. But there have been cases where federal charges have been dropped simply because the growers were unaware of the laws. "For a lot of them, English was a second language, a lot of whom had at least a claim that they were not aware of what the federal law is. So our interest is going after the profits, the money makers, the people who are behind it," said Wagner.
Authorities also met with Valley farm leaders to inform them that leasing land to a pot grower is a federal offense. Investigators urge the public to report pot farmers to law enforcement to help curb the growing problem.