Seven people were fatally shot early Monday morning at a rural Southern California home that the authorities said housed a large-scale illegal marijuana-growing operation.
More than 1,000 pounds of marijuana and “several hundred” marijuana plants with a street value of up to $5 million were found at the house in Aguanga, an unincorporated area of Riverside County north of San Diego, according to the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department. One victim, a woman, was transported by paramedics to a hospital for treatment, the office said. All seven died as a result of their injuries, officials said.
Sheriff Chad Bianco said at a news conference on Tuesday night that the illegal marijuana trade remains a constant and deadly menace, even as the state has legalized recreational marijuana. “Marijuana is not a victimless crime,” he said. “These illegal operations are extremely dangerous.”
So far this year, the sheriff’s office has responded to eight episodes in Riverside County with a total of 14 murder victims “dealing strictly with marijuana,” he said.
Sheriff Bianco offered few details about the most recent killings. “We believe at this time that there were multiple suspects,” he said. “We are still processing the scene, we are still processing our witnesses and potential witnesses for any information that they may be able to provide us that can lead us to the identification of suspects.”
But the sheriff spoke at length about the location as being part of a far-reaching, “major organized crime type operation.” The property had multiple spaces for growing and processing marijuana plants, housing for as many as 20 people, and multiple vehicles registered to different states, he said.
There were facilities to grow, dry, and process marijuana into “honey oil,” he said, referring to the golden, highly potent liquid extracted from the plant and containing the psychoactive ingredient tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC.
The investigation will likely lead the authorities into multiple states, Sheriff Bianco said, or beyond. “All of the people who were on site that were potential witnesses or the victims, were Laotians,” he said. He did not elaborate.
Medical marijuana has been legal in California for 20 years and the sale of recreational marijuana was legalized in 2016. But the state’s longtime illegal marijuana market has continued to thrive, officials have said. Experts say that is because of the surplus of marijuana in the area as well as a patchwork of laws by local governments regulating the newly legalized industry.
Though California’s large cities have established legal marijuana businesses, most of the state — small cities and towns — has not. This is one of the many reasons the illegal market continues to flourish.
Of roughly 14 million pounds of cannabis grown in California, some 80 percent is sent out illicitly to the rest of the country, according to state estimates, where the product can command vastly higher prices than in California.
In 2019, New Frontier Data, a data research company that specializes in cannabis, calculated that high demand and more advanced growing techniques would contribute approximately half a million pounds more illicit cannabis than the year before.
Riverside County has regulated commercial cannabis operations since December 2018.