Essential California: Illegal pot farms upend desert life

A structure full of marijuana plants
A June 8 photo from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department shows marijuana plants inside an illegal grow operation in the Antelope Valley.
(Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Monday, July 12. I’m Shelby Grad, filling in for Justin Ray.

The legalization of marijuana has not gone as California planned. Tax revenues have not hit anywhere close to the levels officials expected. It’s so bad the state is considering a $100-million bailout of the industry. Illegal marijuana operations remain a huge problem and a source of violence and crime.

Now, a new Times investigation looks at how illegal marijuana is transforming the Mojave Desert in troubling ways. The desert, with its remote location and sun, is now a pot-growing hot spot. Among the findings:

— This hot, dry, unforgiving climate has attracted more than a thousand marijuana plantations that fill the arid expanse between the Antelope Valley and the Colorado River.


— Authorities say the boom has led to forced labor, violence, water theft and the destruction of fragile desert habitat and wildlife.

— The Times found at least five Mojave Desert slayings in 2020 and 2021 that investigators said were related to pot farming, as well as one attempted murder. In one recent eradication sweep, authorities seized 373,000 pot plants and more than 16 tons of harvested marijuana with a street value of more than $1 billion — the largest such operation in the department’s history.

Read more from The Times’ investigation here.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

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It was a weekend of extreme heat, destructive fires and questions about how much worse it will get:

In Northern California, fires continue to burn at a rapid pace, destroying some homes in remote areas Sunday. Los Angeles Times

Danger in the air: One of the fires created its own lightning. Los Angeles Times

Plumes of smoke and fire
Smoke and fire rise above Frenchman Lake as the Sugar fire, part of the Beckwourth Complex, burns in Plumas National Forest on Thursday.
(Noah Berger / Associated Press)

The weekend brought daily high temperature records, including 120 in Palm Springs on Saturday. But some cooling is on the way. Los Angeles Times

Climate change is being felt in profound ways in the Antelope Valley, which hit new highs this weekends. It’s bringing soul-searching in the far-out suburbs. Los Angeles Times

Lake Mead, a lifeline for 25 million people and millions of acres of farmland in California, Arizona, Nevada and Mexico, made history when it was engineered 85 years ago, capturing trillions of gallons of river water and ushering in the growth of the modern West. The drought has left it unrecognizable. Los Angeles Times

The scene in Death Valley, which hit 130 degrees this weekend. New York Times

Mental health trauma from the Woolsey fire endures three years later. Los Angeles Daily News

Trying to save the salmon amid drought. San Francisco Chronicle

Weighing the risk: So, how bad will it get? Mercury News


Unvaccinated people face a growing risk: Some who have not been inoculated may have hoped that the dramatic decline in COVID-19 cases this spring and summer — which officials attribute to a robust vaccination campaign — could be enough to protect them. But with the continued spread of the highly contagious Delta variant, infections are again on the rise — and communities with low vaccination rates are in the crosshairs. Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles County has recorded thousands of new coronavirus cases in three days, part of a troubling rise in cases as viral transmission increases among unvaccinated people. Los Angeles Times

Even the Bay Area is beginning to see increases in COVID-19. San Francisco Chronicle

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Quake safety debate: One hour after a magnitude 6.0 earthquake struck Northern California on Thursday, the California Hospital Assn. tweeted that it’s “time to update seismic standards — to focus on all the services people need after a disaster of any kind.” But the association’s tweet omitted that its proposal that would actually weaken existing standards. Los Angeles Times

The challenges facing L.A.’s next mayor: As Los Angeles emerges from the shadows of a global pandemic, its economy is a patchwork of inequity and privilege. Homeless camps have spilled from streets and underpasses onto beaches and city parks. It’s a huge agenda for Eric Garcetti’s successor. Los Angeles Times

The state budget remains a battleground even with Democrats in control. Sacramento Bee

The oil bust is hitting one school district hard. Bakersfield Californian


California victims of sterilization speak out about history and justice. New York Times

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Finally, good news for the movie industry. Marvel’s “Black Widow,” the highly anticipated solo outing for veteran Avenger Natasha Romanoff, opened in first place this weekend with $80 million in U.S. and Canadian ticket sales. The result is the largest North American box office opening since the pandemic began more than a year ago. Los Angeles Times

Disney is employing some interesting accounting with “Black Widow.” Does it tell us about the future? Deadline

Soundstages are in big demand as Hollywood returns to post-pandemic production. Wall Street Journal

A pioneer in gay art has a Los Angeles retrospective, and it’s no “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.” Los Angeles Times

A new generation of young Sikh farmers is making its mark in the Central Valley. New York Times

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Los Angeles: Sunny, 84. San Diego: Partly cloudy, 74. San Francisco: Partly cloudy, 62. San Jose: Sunny, 76. Fresno: sunny, 109. Sacramento: Sunny, 94.


This week’s birthday for someone who made a mark in California:

Linda Ronstadt was born on July 15, 1946, in Tucson, Ariz., but it was California where she made her career and home. In 2019, The Times’ Amy Kaufman visited the singer at Ronstadt’s Bay Area house, where she reflected on her life.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

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