Law enforcement officials in the San Francisco Bay Area seized more than 100,000 cannabis plants from more than a dozen unlicensed cultivation sites last week, taking down a “modern day bootlegging” operation in a series of raids that spanned two days. The massive bust carried out by the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office across the East Bay resulted in the confiscation of millions of dollars in cash and cannabis plants representing tens of millions in potential illicit marijuana sales, according to law enforcement estimates.
“This is an organization operating outside the law and the protocols of governance of marijuana in California, unsanctioned and making millions in profits,” said Ray Kelly, public information officer for the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office.
Kelly said that the illicit cultivation operations, which he described as “high tech” and “very sophisticated,” were “motivated by extreme profit and greed. It was a pure cash grab by the organizers of this enterprise.” Several suspects have been arrested during the raids, although officials have not released the names of those individuals taken into custody.
18-Month Investigation Led To Bay Area Raids
More than 100 sheriff’s office personnel and agents with the Alameda County Narcotics Task Force were involved in an 18-month investigation that culminated in last week’s raids, which saw search warrants served at 18 sites in East Oakland, Hayward, Castro Valley and San Leandro. The investigation was begun by narcotics detectives with the sheriff’s department after they received a tip about an illegal marijuana cultivation operation. The raids yielded about six tons of pot as well as Rolex watches and other jewelry.
“We’ve seized 12,000 pounds of processed, harvested marijuana product ready to go to sale,” Kelly said.
At one raided cultivation site in an Oakland warehouse, deputies seized as much as $10 million in cash along with evidence of a money-laundering operation. Kelly noted that the Bay Area cultivators could have avoided police action if it had been licensed by the state.
“What’s crazy about this is had they applied for proper permits and fees and paid all their licenses and tax fees, we wouldn’t be here,” he said at a press conference at the Oakland warehouse on Thursday, where he displayed a bag he said contained $1 million in seized cash. “This is one of the largest grows we’ve ever seen in recent memory. It’s a massive operation.”
“These people are not doing that,” Kelly told Newsweek, referring to gaining the necessary permits to cultivate cannabis legally. “They’re operating similar to 1920s bootlegging operation. They’re very sophisticated, very organized. They’ve invested millions of dollars in their infrastructure. We estimate they have somewhere near half a million square feet of real estate grow space that they use.”
Kelly said that the operators of the illicit cannabis cultivation sites would purchase warehouses and other buildings, outfitting them with sophisticated growing equipment including computers and timers. The suspects would pay plumbers and electricians inder the table to install the equipment, and hired cultivators, trimmers, and transporters to produce and distribute the cannabis.
12 Truckloads of Pot Up In Smoke
The sheriff’s spokesperson said that 12 tractor-trailer loads of cannabis had been transported to a site in California’s Central Valley to be incinerated. He added that required taxes had not been paid on cannabis sales and that forensic accountants would be involved in the ongoing investigation. In a social media post on Wednesday, the sheriff’s office wrote that it would take several days to process the search warrant sites and haul away the contraband.
“This organized and sophisticated network of individuals were making tens of millions of dollars in profit and avoiding California [marijuana regulations],” the sheriff’s office wrote on Facebook. “We estimate at this time that we have seized over 100,000 plants and upwards of $10,000,000 in cash. In addition, there are millions of dollars in infrastructure, equipment, lighting, generators and supplies used to facilitate the grows.”
Kelly said that at least seven people have been arrested in the operation so far, and more arrests could be forthcoming. In addition to offenses involving illegal marijuana cultivation and money laundering, detectives are investigating if any environmental laws have be broken by the operation.
“The environmental impact that these locations cause is concerning,” he said. “We’re talking about fertilizers, chemicals, chemicals known to cause cancer.”
Despite the arrests and seizures, Kelly said that the potential profits from illicit cannabis are so high he doubted the operation would serve as much of a deterrent.
“There is nothing to stop them from doing it again,” he said. “It’s such a lucrative business.”