Sheriff's new task force aims to rid Merced County of illegal marijuana grows

MERCED COUNTY, Calif. (KFSN) -- Along with removing thousands of plants, sheriff's investigators say they've recovered dozens of stolen weapons and drugs from last week's illegal marijuana grow.

It's a constant problem in the county, and now investigators are hoping a new task force will control the problem, and keep criminals out of Merced County.

"These aren't people following the rules," said Sheriff Vern Warnke. "These are illegal setups and black market that are protected by firepower."

In a recent sting, deputies removed more than 12,000 marijuana plants, along with guns and drugs throughout Merced County.

It's a growing problem; one Sheriff Warnke is hoping to solve with a new task force.

"The sheriff's enforcement team (SET)," he said. "They're going to be going out and doing a lot of these compliance checks and making sure the folks doing it are in compliance."

Warnke says the illegal grows are getting more dangerous for their deputies, and for the surrounding community as they expand in size.

"This last one they had people sleeping on mattresses, and food and water was brought to them," he said. "They stayed on the property. The criminal element we've been seeing is escalating. We're seeing more cartel influence with this stuff."

Sheriff's officials say they're already approaching more 700,000 plants seized this year, and this new SET team will go out and target more of these illegal grows.

"We'll be able to eradicate marijuana four days a week, rather than one day a week," said Sgt. Ray Framstad. "Also be able to reach out to the community more."

The county allows six plants to grow indoors, but Warnke says since marijuana offenses are mostly misdemeanors, criminals don't care about committing the crime.

He and his team are still tackling the problem, saying they have more illegal grows they plan to eradicate this week.

"We're going to have more, and we have them mapped out," Warnke said. "We're going to get them heavy."
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