PALMDALE (CBSLA) — Even though marijuana is legal in California, black market distribution is still incredibly lucrative because it is unregulated and not taxed.

An undercover sergeant on the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s Marijuana Eradication Team described the county’s illegal grow operation problem as “a cancer that’s spreading throughout someone’s body.” (CBSLA)

“From 2020 to 2021, the problem has just exploded,” an undercover narcotics sergeant on the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s Marijuana Eradication Team said.

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He described the county’s illegal grow operation problem as “a cancer that’s like spreading throughout someone’s body.”

“So far this year, we’ve mapped approximately 500 illegal grows, and we have not surveyed the entire Antelope Valley,” he said. “We believe there’s upwards of 700-plus.”

The narcotics sergeant said the biggest threat to the community was organized crime and drug cartels. He said the marijuana from illegal grows was being sold on the street, in illegal dispensaries and even in some legal dispensaries.

The problem with stopping the illegal grows, he said, was that the punishment for the operations is only a state misdemeanor.

“Not many people are scared of the legal or the justice system,” he said.

But, Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger said she’s trying to change that.

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“We have to nip this in the bud now,” she said.

Barger said she was working with local, state and federal partners to try and change the laws to make penalties harsher.

“[We have to] ensure that we don’t allow this to be like a whack-a-mole where we’re closing down one week and then the next week they open,” she said.

Another issue with the large-scale illegal pot grows is their impact on the environment. The narcotics sergeant said criminal organizations were using millions of gallons of water mixed with chemicals that then end up going back into the ground and watering other plants in the area.

But, he said, the most immediate danger has been the uptick in violent crime.

“We have had instances of violence within the last year, that we haven’t seen before, directly related to these outdoor illegal grows,” he said.

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As for Barger, she said she plans to wait until the results of a report on the grow houses are released June 7 to decide how to legislatively tackle the issue.