California police discovered around 60 people working at a California illegal marijuana site under “horrible conditions”. Some were reported to be “victims of human trafficking”. Read on to find out more about these terrible circumstances.
What Was Going on at the Illegal Marijuana Site?
According to the Merced Sheriff’s Office, the people found at the illegal marijuana site, which was located on the 900 block of Vassar Ave. in Merced, CA, were forced to process marijuana to “pay back the individuals that brought them across the border”.
“We are at the scene of one of the largest processing areas we have ever encountered. We literally have thousands of pounds of finished product marijuana from an illegal grow and illegal source,” Sheriff Van Warnke said in a video posted on Facebook.
“The tragedy on this- besides the illegal growing of it and processing- is the fact that there are 60 people here that have been promised jobs, brought across the border on the promise of making money each day, these folks are indentured,” he continued. “They owe money and yet we are here at an illegal processing center, and they are scared to death.”
Deputies served a search warrant to investigate the illegal marijuana site last week. Images posted online by the sheriff’s office show trays, bags, and boxes stuffed with marijuana inside the run-down facility with ceilings that appeared to be collapsing.
“We literally have thousands of pounds of finished marijuana from an illegal grow and illegal source,” Warnke stated in the video.
Authorities did not reveal what country the workers came from.
Law Enforcement Efforts
Warnke noted that his team is doing “everything we can to help” the people found at the illegal marijuana site. “It’s a travesty, tragedy, all the things you can think about because we have 60 lives here that have been upturned because of this,” he said.
“Send some prayers please,” he continued. “(The) human trafficking aspect of this is so blatant it’s heart-wrenching,”
Police found one juvenile working at the illegal marijuana site. They contacted Child Protective Services, and the child has since been released to a parent.
Three goats and two dogs found at the illegal marijuana site were suffering from “inadequate care”. They were rescued by first responders.
No arrests have been made yet, but investigators are “working tirelessly to find the individuals responsible.”
The men and women found at the illegal marijuana site have been connected to resources to improve their situation. None are facing charges.
“They’re victims in this and it’s an active investigation,” a sheriff’s office spokesperson said.
California and Illegal Grow Sites
The illegal marijuana site is just one of the illicit grow sites in California. They are an increasing concern. They have been on the rise since marijuana became legal. Many people grow illegally to avoid taxes.
The issue is especially prevalent in California thanks to a 2016 legislation that downgraded illegal growth from a felony to a misdemeanor. Organized crime units have taken advantage of the new laws and are taking over the illegal market.
Residents are not as concerned about the illegal growth as they are about the violence that comes with it.
“My friend was told not to drive, not to go up there anymore,” said one community member. He claimed that the friend was then shown a picture of a dead man who tried to enter the area.
What’s Being Done
The exploitation of California cannabis workers has been recognized by the government. The Department of Cannabis Control was assembled to address concerns. The unit has partnered with law enforcement to investigate operators who expose workers to dangerous conditions, coerce or threaten employees, and deny them pay.
The unit was formed following the December publication of “Dying for Your High” a Times article that discussed human trafficking in the cannabis industry. It detailed abuse allegations against almost 200 cannabis operators, half of which were licensed by the state. It revealed that 35 cannabis workers were killed on the job within five years.
After the story was released, a legislative town hall was formed to gather information concerning exploitation in the cannabis industry. Officials claim there will be additional hearings in the fall.
Others are pushing for the formation of a central agency to address human trafficking, not only in the cannabis industry but in all industries. Human trafficking has been banned in California since 2005, but a state watchdog agency found that laws are difficult to enforce with no central agency in place.
Five Northern California counties began providing human trafficking intervention training to narcotics officers. The state attorney general and governor’s office have also launched initiatives to reduce illegal cannabis operations that would minimize human trafficking. A Human Trafficking/Exploitation Assessment and Response Team (HEART) was also forced to address the problem.
These actions mark an expansion in the Department of Cannabis Control, and the results are notable. Before the publishing of the Times article, the cannabis agency refused to discuss its handling of worker exploitation. Now lawmakers are communicating with the department and keeping records of cannabis employment.
Numbers Continue to Rise
Although there is an effort to address the issue, illegal grow sites and human trafficking continue to increase in California. The illegal marijuana site in Merced is just one example.
A Trinity County Farm is facing allegations that stem back to 2019 and continue into 2022. Two workers died of carbon monoxide poisoning after seeking shelter from the cold in a greenhouse rank with exhaust fumes.
Other workers said they were underpaid for their work. Some said they received just $900 for 117 hours of work.
The ongoing problems may be due to the limitations of the agencies appointed to address the issue. They are limited by pay and hours.
A lack of defined legislation is also an issue. Although California banned all forms of human trafficking over 15 years ago, no agency was mandated to combat it. Worker protections are relegated to labor unions, not the government. As a result, workers are still largely unprotected.