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With cheap prices and plenty of industrial properties, Bakersfield attracts illegal marijuana growers

Marijuana grow 1 (copy)

In this file photo, an illegal marijuana grow recently busted in north Bakersfield by the Kern County Sheriff's Office can be seen.

As the coronavirus pandemic has made working from home more widespread, an influx of coastal residents have flocked to Bakersfield, eyeing cheap home prices. But others have also set their sights on Bakersfield’s affordable property market, and local law enforcement agencies are struggling to keep up.

Illegal cannabis grows represent a significant challenge for Bakersfield and Kern County police. Despite marijuana being legal throughout California, both the Bakersfield City Council and Kern County Supervisors have banned the sale and cultivation of the product. Only California City and Arvin have allowed cannabis businesses to open legally.

However, just like Angelenos hoping to trade in their cramped homes for more spacious (and cheaper) residences in Bakersfield, cannabis growers have also targeted the area for their own illicit purposes.

In February, the Kern County Sheriff’s Office confiscated nearly $30 million worth of marijuana plants from allegedly illegal grows operating out of metro Bakersfield. As part of the busts, KCSO arrested seven individuals from the Los Angeles area suspected of being involved in the grows, with another individual coming from Russia and one from Bakersfield.

Despite the eye-catching numbers, the Sheriff’s Office estimates there are dozens more in the surrounding community that have yet to be identified.

“I don’t think we’re even scratching the surface as far as I’m concerned,” said KCSO Lt. Raul Murrillo.

With a higher profit margin by operating out of Bakersfield, cultivators can grow the cannabis in industrial warehouses or even residences before shipping the product throughout the United States. “Just about everybody” KCSO does identify comes from outside the county, according to the department.

“Their end reward, if they were able to successfully cultivate and harvest several hundred pounds of marijuana, and traffic it out of the state, they can make millions of dollars off of it,” said KCSO Sgt. John Coleman.

Law enforcement points to complaints from neighboring residents, along with concerns over waste disposal and violence as reasons why illegal grow sites should be targeted, but legitimate marijuana growers also point out the black market damages the legal one. By siphoning customers away from legal pot, licensed growers and dispensaries have a harder time surviving. When one takes into account the expense associated with complying with state regulations and paying taxes, the difficulty becomes even greater.

“It’s like cutting in line at a Disneyland ride,” said Jeffrey Thorn, co-owner of Arvin-based delivery service 420 Kingdom. “You stood in line for three hours and a guy jumps up and steals everything from you. It’s miserable.”

Lowering taxes and instituting steep fines on property owners who allow illegal cultivation could help the situation, he said, adding that despite the higher cost, consumers still choose to shop at 420 Kingdom because of the quality control and product safety.

“If you just lower the taxes, you’ll drive more people out of the illegal market and into the legal market,” he added. “Until that happens it’s always going to be a problem.”

According to state data, 1,054 cannabis storefronts and delivery services operate in California. Yet it’s unknown how many illegal dispensaries and grow operations are in existence, serving an unknown number of Californians. Enforcement can be difficult, as many illegal growers and dispensary owners simply open again after being arrested. But as the young industry continues to grow, the state hopes to iron out the deficiencies in the system so the legal market can gradually overtake the illegal one.

“We just have to continue to follow up on every complaint and make it harder for illegal operators to stay in business,” said Alex Traverso, spokesman for the state cannabis bureau. “We also have to do all we can to help people get licensed as quickly as possible. Many jurisdictions still ban cannabis activity in their area, which makes it a little harder, but we have to do as much as we can within our power to help good actors find a way to a license.”

You can reach Sam Morgen at 661-395-7415. You may also follow him on Twitter @smorgenTBC.