Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger warned Tuesday that “massive” cannabis grow operations in the east Antelope Valley are using dangerous pesticides, stealing water from fire hydrants and frightening neighbors into silence, but agreed to postpone a vote on pushing for tougher criminal penalties.
Barger introduced a motion seeking to crack down on illegal cannabis dispensaries in unincorporated areas and take a long list of steps to push back against commercial growers of hemp and cannabis.
“These bad actors are seizing private property, operating hundreds of illegal grows, stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars in water from the Fifth District community, significantly damaging local ecosystems and habitats and steamrolling anyone who gets in their way,” Barger told her colleagues. “Many private property owners have had their land stolen out from under them with threats of violence levied if they dare to push back.”
In addition to amending state health and safety codes to increase penalties for certain cannabis offenses, Barger’s motion contemplates advocating for a handful of other changes to state law, the majority of which focus on water theft. Barger also recommended shifting $250,000 from her district’s Consumer Protection Settlement fund to the sheriff’s department for continued targeted enforcement.
The motion would require four votes in favor from the five-member board. Barger said other supervisors had raised some concerns with the motion as drafted, and she preemptively agreed to postpone a vote to the board’s next meeting, set for July 13.
Supervisor Holly Mitchell said she was sympathetic to concerns about water theft and environmental damage, but balked at statewide changes to solve a local problem.
“It really felt like a statewide approach or response to a local incident,” Mitchell told Barger, asking for more time to review the various proposals, which also include new local ordinances.
Barger responded that while her rural district may be distinctly plagued by such large commercial grow operations, the problem was likely to trouble the entire county if left unchecked.
“It’s only a matter of time before you have these type of illegal grows happening in industrial areas,” Barger said.
It’s already a problem that extends beyond the Antelope Valley.
“It’s not unique to L.A. County, it’s happening in Kern as well as San Bernardino,” Barger said.
Supervisor Janice Hahn said she hoped Barger would reconsider the idea of stiffer penalties, though she called the language in this regard vague and said she expected to see more details.
“I didn’t like being on record asking the state to change the law to increase the criminal penalties for cannabis offenses,” Hahn said.
“I think that given everything that we’re doing on this board, it feels like that would be the wrong direction, and I know our history is that we’ve seen what happens when we overly criminalize cannabis consumption and production.”
Hahn also took the opportunity to tell the board it may be time to reconsider the county’s ban on cannabis in unincorporated areas.
“We basically kicked the can down the road,” Hahn said of the board’s last vote to continue a ban on marijuana dispensaries in unincorporated areas.
That prohibition has been in place since 2010 and was broadened in 2017 to include the cultivation, manufacture, testing and distribution of the drug for other than personal use.
California voted to legalize cannabis in 2016 and legal recreational sales began in January 2018.
“We’ve seen how it’s played out and seen the rest of the country, and even the rest of the world, move in the direction of legalizing, taxing (and) regulating cannabis,” Hahn said. “And I just think it’s time for us to at least have that conversation again.”
The board is expected to reconsider Barger’s motion on July 13, though Barger said she would continue working in the meantime with the Department of Public Works to thwart water theft.
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