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Cannabis-legal California battling surging illegal marijuana operations

Cannabis-legal California battling surging illegal marijuana operations
Cannabis-legal California battling surging illegal marijuana operations 03:59

DISCOVERY BAY – In a state where cannabis is widely legalized, California still has a significant illegal marijuana scene. The state Department of Cannabis Control (DCC) is only two years old but is quickly tackling and dismantling these operations.

For Bill Jones of the DCC, it was just another Tuesday as he pulled up to an unsuspecting house in a gated neighborhood. To the untrained eye, one would never guess what was hiding inside.

"It really could be anywhere," Jones told CBS News Bay Area. "It could be your neighborhood, could be my neighborhood.

CBS News Bay Area was invited on a ride along while DCC officers executed search warrants and seized illegal crops.

Inside four homes in a Discovery Bay neighborhood, officers found illegal cannabis operations.

 "We're going to see anywhere between 3,000 to 5,000 plants," Jones said. "And we're talking about a square mile here."

Jones has been in law enforcement for nearly three decades and the DCC holds a personal significance as he was part of the team tasked with standing the department up in 2021.

"I hired all these officers," Jones said. "I'm so proud of my people. They work so hard."

Upon entry into the house, the smell of cannabis fills the space and each room has its own microclimate as those who tended to the crop closely monitored the environment of the plants. But in doing so, the practice created an illegal and hazardous space.

"There's a really sharp contrast between the illegal cannabis market and the licensed cannabis market," Jones explained. "The illegal market which in part has criminal organizations like Mexican cartels and Chinese triads and other transnational criminal organizations operating it. They pay no taxes, they have no concerns about how they grow and distribute, they use banned chemicals and pesticides. They take advantage of their employees, sometimes they even engage in human trafficking."

In the first two stops, officers seized nearly 2,000 plants totaling 1,000 pounds of cannabis.

Since the department's inception, operations have surged each year, up from 62 in its first year to 155 in 2022. In the same time, the department has seized more than $1 billion of illegal cannabis.

 "By doing it illegally, you're keeping your costs low by basically trading your workers using hazardous chemicals and you're not paying taxes," said Jones. "So, I would boil it down to greed."

Neighbors didn't want to speak on camera, but they said they're shocked that such an advanced operation took place in this quiet community.

Jones says it's all in the name of supporting the legal cannabis industry.

"It's not fair. It's not fair to people who are doing it right, who are doing it legally," Jones said. "And I think that's part of the equation, holding those illegal operators accountable. And obviously, the more we manage the illegal market, the easier it will be to do it the right way."

It was a multi-agency effort to seize and dispose of the illegal plants that Jones says often sells for top dollar out of state.

But Jones said the mold the environment could cause, paired with the chemicals often used in an illegal greenhouse could pose serious health risks, not only to the house's occupants but to the neighborhood.

"There's all kinds of fertilizers and pesticides in there," Jones explained. "So it's really a menace to that community. They're dumping all those pesticides and fertilizers that are contained in the water into the storm drains."

Busts like these happen several times a week, Jones said. Despite their best efforts, he believes it's unlikely he'll stop seeing these illegal networks any time soon.  

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