Three Fresno men were arrested and nearly 3,000 marijuana plants -- a street value of more than $14 million -- were seized last week at a house off Road 600 in Raymond.
The three arrested are:
Tom Techakaew, 56.
Khamko Vongphachanh, 39.
Michael Vongphachanh, 34.
Placed all around the grow were more than 20 Proposition 215 signs -- California's law that allows medical cannabis. Some of the signs were nailed to posts, facing towards the sky so they'd be visible to law enforcement flyovers. Medical Cannabis recommendations found on the property were signed primarily by three doctors -- the majority from one doctor in Visalia.
Even though medical cannabis is legal under California law Proposition 215, it is illegal under federal law.
"The federal government does not recognize California marijuana laws, so ... (they) will be prosecuted under federal law," said Madera County Sheriff John Anderson. "Federal law trumps local law. They were commercial growers, not medical marijuana growers."
Anderson said federal agents get involved in some grows is because of the size -- large grows under the guise of medicinal use are often times for commercial use.
"The bottom line is they have completely taken advantage of the law under the guise that it's for medicinal use," said Erica Stuart, public information officer for the sheriff's department.
Anderson said that although recommendations say no more than 99 medical marijuana plants, often growers still think they they can escape federal prosecution if they grow more than their allowed allotment.
Along with the marijuana plants, two shipping boxes of processed marijuana and two rifles were seized.
The bust was part of Operation Mercury -- a summer-long eradication mission. The three law enforcement agencies that were part of the mission -- equalling 35 armed uniformed officers -- were the Madera County Narcotic Enforcement Team, Department of Justice Drug Enforcement Administration agents, and the Madera County Sheriff's Department, including Anderson.
The agencies met at 5:30 a.m. before making their way to two grow sites, waking up the growers -- one of which was sleeping with a shotgun. The three arrested were taken into custody shortly after 6 a.m. at a house they were renting.
Fish and Game was also called in after agents discovered a dead bobcat hanging from a patio rafter.
Agents also detained four men at a second garden off Road 600, but that site only had 200-300 marijuana plants. That investigation is still ongoing, but Anderson said growers from each site seemed to know each other.
The marijuana found at both sites was a type of hybrid plant with a much higher yield than the average marijuana plant. Anderson said the weight of product yielded by a plant is critical. In most cases plants yield a pound, but the hybrid variety is shorter, about three feet tall, and can yield up to five pounds. They also have a higher percentage of THC -- the psychoactive constituent of the cannabis plant.
Anderson said that evidence seized at both gardens revealed that hundreds of plants had already been harvested this season.
Other raids by law enforcement officials this year include the eradication of 7,605 marijuana plants from Bailey Flats near Raymond and 10,783 plants in North Fork.