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Marijuana, Meth Seizures Rise Sharply in 1996

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Vast open spaces and vast appetites for illegal drugs helped fuel huge jumps in 1996 in the cultivation of marijuana and the production of methamphetamine in Ventura County, according to drug enforcement officials.

Drug traffickers have used the county’s acres of rugged parkland as hiding places for intricately laid out marijuana plantations, and remote ranch and farmland to hide “speed kitchens” for the production of methamphetamine.

In 1996, the amount of marijuana seized from back-country pot farms by sheriff’s deputies has more than tripled over the previous year, said Capt. Dennis Carpenter, who heads the Sheriff’s Department’s narcotics unit.

And the makers of methamphetamine-- also known as speed or crank--have taken advantage of remote orchards and ranches in the county to build labs to cook up the drug, Carpenter said.

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This year, methamphetamine seizures have jumped more than 50% over last year, surpassing cocaine as the drug of choice among local dealers, he said.

“That’s a very significant increase,” Carpenter said. “We suspect it’s become more popular than cocaine because you don’t have to go elsewhere to buy it. You can put it together in your own lab and sell it, and [the euphoric high] lasts a bit longer than cocaine.”

Although local narcotics officers have seen a steep increase in methamphetamine seizures and a decline in cocaine seizures, Drug Enforcement Agency officials said this is not part of a larger trend.

“Cocaine is still king,” said Special Agent Abel Reynoso, spokesman for the DEA in Los Angeles. Ventura County authorities “work street-level dealers mainly. . . . We’re working major dealers. That’s the reason for the difference. Also, we’re talking about logistics and geography. It’s expensive to work cocaine cases. As for the marijuana, Ventura has all those open spaces. It’s easier for the growers to work there, so that’s probably why you have those numbers. “

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Earlier this month, the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department raided a methamphetamine lab outside of Ojai that had the capacity of producing more than 25 pounds of the drug, which officials said could fetch as much as $250,000 on the street. The narcotics officers arrested four suspects at the rural ranch who were believed to be supplying methamphetamine to cities in Orange County.

There has also been a case where suppliers from outside the county were caught distributing to dealers in Oxnard and Camarillo, Carpenter said.

In October, deputies arrested five people in Oxnard and two in Long Beach on suspicion of supplying methamphetamine to the area.

“To some degree, it’s going both ways,” Carpenter said. “We have people bringing meth in and others shipping it out.”

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People from outside Ventura County are believed to be involved in the illegal growing of marijuana in back-country plantations around the area and taking advantage of a nationwide resurgence of popularity for pot, officials said.

Teams of narcotics officers from the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department, U.S. Forest Service, FBI and other local agencies joined forces this summer to raid half a dozen back-country marijuana farms, seizing about 23,000 pot plants estimated to be worth more than $93 million, Carpenter said.

Sheriff’s Department officials estimate that each plant has the ability to produce a pound of high-grade seedless marijuana worth an estimated $4,000 when divided up for street sale.

Although only a handful of minor arrests have been made in connection with any of the illegal pot farms, officials said they suspect the local marijuana plantations are connected to Mexican drug cartels.

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Many of the small encampments had the same brand equipment and very similar layouts, as if they were all part of the same network of growers, Carpenter said. But his narcotics officers have yet to make a case connecting the illegal growers to one another or to any organized crime syndicate.

Reynoso of the DEA said there still is no established connection between Mexican drug cartels and pot plantations in Ventura County.

According to a Drug Enforcement Agency report released in October--the end of the marijuana growing season--Ventura County placed fourth, behind Mendocino, Humboldt and San Diego counties, among the top marijuana-producing counties in California, Carpenter said.

The huge jump in the illegal plantations has prompted Carpenter to apply for a $20,000 drug eradication grant from the federal government. The department will not know whether the grant will be approved until April.

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“Frankly, we were surprised by how much activity we’ve seen this year,” said Special Agent Jim Burton of the U.S. Forest Service.

Traditionally, most of the illegal marijuana growing done in the 2-million-acre Los Padres National Forest has taken place in Monterey County, Burton said. But this year, almost 90% of the marijuana seized in the national forest, which covers portions of five counties, was in Ventura County.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Drug Busts

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Street Value of Drugs Seized by the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department.

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1995 1996 Cocaine $560,000 $33,000 Methamphetamine $997,000 $1.5 million Marijuana Plants $29 million $93 million

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Source: Ventura County Sheriff’s Department


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