Exclusive look at San Bernardino County Sheriff's push to stop illegal marijuana grow houses

FOX 11 got an exclusive look at how San Bernardino Sheriff stops drug cartels in the area.

Can San Bernardino County Sheriff hit drug cartels with project Hammerstrike?  

We begin before dawn, FOX 11 joined San Bernardino County deputies from the Gang and Drug Enforcement Bureau, along with officers from Fish and Game, Probation, and even Code Enforcement, for Operation Hammer Strike.

Deputies began serving search warrants at illegal marijuana grow houses in the remote community of Newbury Springs. The desert areas around Barstow have seen a huge growth in illegal grows. 

Cartels are taking advantage of Prop 64, passed by voters in California, that decriminalized the illegal cultivation of marijuana. What was supposed to stop targeting minorities for personal drug use, has turned into a financial opportunity for organizations setting up large grow houses in remote areas, hoping they will blend in with the legal grows.

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"Officially, I can show you 1,205 illegal ones" says Sgt Rich Debevec, who works with the Special Operations units dealing with gangs and narcotics. "But I am sure there’s at least, another thousand."  

Residents in the communities affected are angry and scared. Many tell us that men armed with shotguns and semi-automatic weapons have taken to patrolling the dirt roads where the grow houses are located.

Farmers are losing fields of legal crops, from lack of water, which is being stolen by the grow house operators, who dig illegal wells and tap into the local water sources. Every location we saw had dangerous-looking illegal electrical setups tapping into (and stealing) electricity from power poles or other properties.

San Bernardino County Sheriff Shannon Dicus is working with the county to add more personnel to the drug enforcement efforts, is also working with the county on a per plant fee for illegal grow houses. 

That would hit the owners in the pocketbook even further and perhaps make a difference. Right now, paying misdemeanor citations for the people tending to the crops that are the ones being detained by deputies amounts to little more than the cost of doing business.  

The cartels, say investigators, bring in workers illegally across the border from countries like Mexico, Central America, Laos, Cambodia and China. Fourteen people were arrested by officers today, at four locations. All received misdemeanor citations. 

The task force destroyed hundreds of plants that had not flowered yet, confiscated close to four thousand with viable buds, plus 1,022 pounds of processed marijuana. 

The total street value for all 1,022 pounds of the confiscated marijuana? Almost $3 million.