SEP 26 (FRESNO, Calif.) — First of its kind, Operation Mercury targeted marijuana growing on agricultural land in the Central Valley, DEA Special Agent in Charge Anthony D. Williams, United States Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner, and Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims announced today.
Unlike previous operations that targeted marijuana grown on public land, Operation Mercury targeted agricultural land in the counties of Merced, Madera, Kings, Tulare, Kern and Fresno. Beginning in March 2012 to the present, Operation Mercury has resulted in 71 federal defendants charged and three federal defendants convicted and sentenced to prison. Sixty-six federal search warrants resulted in the seizure of 120,598 plants, 1,509 pounds of processed marijuana, 32 firearms, and $4,869 cash.
The combined federal and local eradication and enforcement efforts of Operation Mercury have resulted in an overall seizure of more than 400,000 marijuana plants, primarily from agricultural lands; more than 100 firearms; and more than 175 total arrests. Investigations are ongoing, and the numbers are expected to increase.
“Operation Mercury targeted large-scale marijuana grows operating on the Central Valley’s highly productive farmlands resulting in significant seizures and numerous arrests. This operation should send a clear message that marijuana cultivation and distribution remain illegal under federal law,” stated DEA Special Agent in Charge Anthony D. Williams. “The success of this operation would not have been possible without the support of our state and local law enforcement counterparts in these communities.”
U.S. Attorney Wagner stated: “Much of the marijuana cultivated in large commercial operations in the Central Valley is being shipped to other states. This office, in partnership with local law enforcement, remains firmly committed to enforcing the Controlled Substances Act and will vigorously enforce prohibitions against cultivation and distribution of marijuana.”
As enforcement efforts on marijuana grown on public lands increased, a number of counties on the southern end of the Central Valley observed an increase in marijuana grown on agricultural land. During 2011, more than 110 agricultural grow sites were identified in Fresno County, and another 60 sites were identified in Madera County. From 500 to several thousand plants were being grown on these sites. Kern County reported numerous agricultural grows that had improvised booby traps installed along with the plants.
These grow sites have brought with them increased vehicle traffic, pungent odors that preclude neighbors from being able to open windows, armed guards in watch towers, confrontations between marijuana growers and legitimate farmers, and dozens of individuals observed living in huts in fields. There has also been a corresponding increase in armed robberies and violence near and in the grow sites.
Congress has determined that marijuana is a dangerous drug, and that the manufacture and distribution of marijuana are serious crimes. Cultivation and distribution of marijuana are felony crimes under the federal Controlled Substances Act. It is also a felony for a property owner to rent, lease or otherwise make a place available for the cultivation or distribution of marijuana. Violations can result in imprisonment and a fine up to $500,000 or a civil penalty of $250,000 or twice the gross receipts, whichever is greater. In addition to criminal and civil penalties, property being used to cultivate or distribute marijuana may be forfeited to the United States without compensation, along with any proceeds of the illegal activity.
Operation Mercury was carried out by federal agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement-Homeland Security Investigations (ICE-HSI), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), U.S. Fish and Game, special agents from the California Department of Justice, wardens from the California Department of Fish and Game, officers of the California National Guard, and detectives and deputy sheriffs from the Sheriff’s Departments of Fresno, Kern, Kings, Madera, Merced, and Tulare Counties. Assistance was also provided by agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Criminal Investigation Division. Assistant United States Attorneys Kevin Rooney, Karen A. Escobar, Laurel Montoya, Kimberly Sanchez, Kathleen Servatius, and Elana Landau are prosecuting the federal cases.
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