In a macabre scene of destruction befitting the Halloween season, more than 10 million cannabis plants were chopped, mulched and incinerated last week after state and federal law enforcement investigated a grow site north of Los Angeles, California. The site, which spanned 11 fields across 459 acres of land, was supposed to be cultivating industrial hemp. But investigators say preliminary field tests found the plants’ THC content to be well above the 0.3 percent threshold for legal hemp. And while California law does exempt some hemp cultivation from the 0.3 percent THC limit, officials say the billion-dollar grow operation did not meet those requirements.
Investigators Destroy Cannabis Grow Posing as Hemp Farm
Back in April, California Governor Gavin Newsome said the state’s situation with illicit marijuana grows was “getting worse, not better.” Despite legalization, unlicensed cannabis cultivation hasn’t decreased. In some places, illegal production has even expanded. And California’s recent legalization of industrial hemp cultivation, in light of the federal government’s move to remove hemp from the Controlled Substances Act, may be providing cover for illicit growers posing as legal hemp producers.
Or at least, that’s the narrative from the Kern Country Sheriff’s Office, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the FBI. The three agencies launched an investigation into the Arvin-area cannabis fields after receiving information from local residents about a large-scale marijuana farm. After executing a search warrant at 11 different fields in the Arvin area, investigators ended up seizing and eradicating 10 million marijuana plants. Officials estimate the total “black market” value of the crop at over $1 billion.
“These illicit marijuana gardens were grown under the guide of legitimate hemp production,” the Kern County Sheriff’s Office wrote in a Facebook post announcing the raid.
So far, however, there have been no charges in connection with the investigation. It’s also unclear whether the farms’ operators intended to produce legally compliant industrial hemp and simply failed, or were actually aiming to conceal an illegal cannabis grow.
$1 Billion Worth of Weed Destroyed
In line with federal regulations, California’s Food and Agricultural Code of Health and the state’s Safety Code define industrial hemp as cannabis plants containing less than 0.3 percent THC by dry weight. There is, however, a research exemption. If a cultivator is growing hemp in connection with research to develop types of industrial hemp that will ultimately meet the legal standard, those plants can be over the 0.3 percent limit on THC content.
But officials say the cannabis plants they seized in Kern County tested well above that limit. And further, the farms were not part of any research and development program or project. As a result, officials have so far concluded that the 11 fields were part of California’s vast network of illicit cannabis cultivation, and that the plants growing there were destined for the unlicensed market. Determining that the plants “were in fact cannabis,” the Kern Country Sheriff’s Office Narcotics unit destroyed all 10 million plants: over $1 billion worth of weed, according to estimates.
The size of the unlicensed grow is a testament to the widespread concern over illegal cannabis cultivation. In addition to distributing potentially harmful or contaminated cannabis, illegal grows stress ecosystems with pollution and resource consumption. Authorities in Kern say their investigation is ongoing.