Marijuana cultivation sites secluded in the dense upper reaches of the forest around Jupiter rarely get attention from authorities.

The grows are over an hour drive and more than 10 miles from paved roads. The cultivators are territorial, and many have guns.

On Tuesday morning, Tuolumne County government officials and deputies with the Tuolumne Narcotics Team did not expect a welcome reception during a sweep of code compliance inspections for unpermitted cannabis cultivation — nor did they receive one.

As a Tuolumne County Building Safety vehicle and an unmarked pickup truck approached a gravel driveway on Diamond Placer Circle, a man in a black Mazda sedan drove out from behind a row of manzanita and barbed-wire fence.

The driver was greeted by two Tuolumne Narcotics Team agents and got out with his hands up.

The man appeared to only understand Spanish and presented them with a Mexican voter identification card.

When the conversation turned to marijuana plants at the property, the man scrawled “90” in the sand beneath his feet.

“Do you live here? Can we come in?” asked Doug Oliver, Tuolumne County chief building official.

“Si,” the man responded and waved his arm in the direction of the driveway. The officials returned to their cars and drove toward an outcropping of oak trees that surrounded a clearing. Emergency lights flashed on the Sheriff’s Office vehicle, and a deputy shouted “policia” over the loudspeaker.

Moments later the man was back in his vehicle and driving away along the unpaved forest road in the direction of Confidence and Mi-Wuk Village.

“He was as nervous as a whore in church,” one of the deputies remarked.

At the end of the driveway, harvestable plants were distributed under four elongated, covered greenhouses, and immature plants were sectioned into little pots, amounting to 1,521 marijuana plants total.

Piles of debris, beer and soda cans, canisters and boxes littered the ground. A tubing of what appeared to be meat or animal intestine hung on a line beside drying socks. The full amenities of a permanent campsite — a fire pit, a makeshift hose-shower, a saint icon statue, a trailer with mattresses, chickens in metal coops and plastic sacks of tortillas, tomatoes, jalapenos and garlic dotted the landscape.

On top of a barrel, just beside the entrance to a grow tent, was a freshly halved watermelon and sections of rind scattered beside it.
A Tuolumne Narcotics Team deputy stood in the center of the camp holding an AR-15, surveilling the tall leafy thickets for signs of movement.
The other workers must have fled into the trees and brush surrounding the camp, but could be back at any time to protect their plants. He was uncomfortable, he said, because he did not know if they would be armed.

The code compliance team would have to work fast.

Code compliance investigator Dan Butler meandered through the rows of mature and blossoming cannabis, clicking at a tally counter. One group of plants appeared more taut, upright, and exuded a minty aroma for the bees buzzing around its flowers.

Butler asked if he should include those as well, to which a deputy responded, “does it look like weed? Does it smell like weed? Are they growing it like weed? Then it’s weed.”

Oliver identified bottles of chemical fertilizers, remnants of dead wildlife and potential firearms hidden in an onsite trailer, all enhancements which could magnify misdemeanor cultivation charges to a felony, he said.

But the intent of the code compliance inspections was not criminal violations, yet, Oliver said.

“The overarching goal is to gain compliance. The ones that are noncompliant, the Board of Supervisors has directed us to pinpoint those ones, the for-profit cultivators, and bring them into compliance,” Oliver said.

The cultivation violations investigated by the county were treated as civil and administrative offenses, all following an updated fee structure per the health and safety section of a code compliance ordinance.

“The board was looking at other options for really ramping up fines scaleable to the grows we’re seeing out there,” county counsel Carlyn Drivdahl said.

Last summer, during the code compliance operations, a grow site would be fined only $1,552, or $100 for the cannabis cultivation violation and $1,442 for abatements costs, no matter how much actual marijuana was on site.

The update, which went into effect on June 1, was meant as a deterrent to growers who could often secure $2,000 in profit per plant, Oliver said.

Under the new ordinance, cultivators would be charged a separate violation for each marijuana plant in violation of the ordinance code and on a cumulative gradient: $100 for the first day, $200 for the second day, and $500 for the next three days if the plants were not destroyed.

In the case of the of the Diamond Placer Circle property, the owner would be fined about $153,000 upon service of a notice, and by five days that fine would balloon to more than $2.7 million.

Drivdahl said the number of cannabis plants allowed at a property was designated by the county zoning ordinance, but cultivation was not allowed unless a residence was on a property. In general, six plants are allowed inside of a residence per state law, but certain agricultural zonings could allow up to 12 plants outdoors with a square footage allotment, she said.

The cultivation site on Diamond Placer Circle was not just an noncompliant grow operation, the deputies said, but clearly the result of a “transnational criminal organization.” Whether from regions of Mexico or Latin America, or as evidenced by the Chinese-funded indoor marijuana cultivation operations within homes in the Valley Springs and Sacramento area, these locations were more understanded by their vernacular label: cartel grows.

The sole purpose of the cultivators was to grow marijuana until they were caught. Once any cultivation operation was destroyed, another one would crop up.

“It’s normal because this is California. There’s more than one hundred thousand in this state. Think of all the foothills, from Los Angeles to Shasta. There’s money to be made,” a deputy said.

But for Tuolumne County, this grow was exceptional in its size and scale, Oliver said.

“In my experience this is the largest one. I’ve only been doing it three or four years but this is the biggest and the most organized,” he said.

The site proved to be the largest and most explicit noncompliant grow operation of the four sites in Jupiter, all of which within a mile of one another, that were investigated by code compliance officials on Tuesday.

One winding gravel driveway ended at a locked gate, and the investigators turned back.

Oliver and the deputies were not able to immediately obtain search warrants and could only enter sites with the express permission of a property owner or an onsite resident.

Notices initiating the fee citations would be posted on Wednesday, he said.

At one site with 371 marijuana plants, the group was met with hostility.

“This is bull [expletive],” one person on the site said to a woman wearing a shirt emblazoned with “Plants are Friends” and marijuana leaves.

The residents called the property owner and notified him that all of the plants, many of which were only semi-mature and read “KK” and “OG18” on the side of the pots, would have to be tipped over or macheted unless he wanted a $37,000 fine.

“I don’t know what to say,” the woman with the marijuana shirt said. “We went too big.”

Many cultivators had misconceptions about an aspect of Proposition 215 (1996) which allowed for a “reasonably necessary” amount of medical marijuana cultivation, Oliver said. The compliance operations were intended to emphasize to the public that county ordinances restricting cultivation had precedence over that law.

And the hidden grow sites may not be visible from the road, but were visible from the air, Oliver said. Aerial surveillance and Google images was the building office’s best friend. There were many more cultivation sites countywide that would be visited by officials through the conclusion of the harvesting season in October, he said.

And once warrants were secured, the sites would either have to come into compliance or be fined. If the property owner did not pay, a lien could be taken on a property and a court judgment could liquidate an owner’s assets, Oliver said.

At another site, golf-ball sized dandelions spray-painted pink, yellow and blue led to a fortified, eight-foot-tall wooden fence surrounding what appeared to be a collective living site. In all, 953 plants were located, distributed over three parcels. The group allowed the officials to investigate but did not allow media to enter the property.

“They said, ‘the times-are-a-changin. We were wondering when we were going to get caught,’ ” Oliver said.

Contact Giuseppe Ricapito at (209) 588-4526 or gricapito@uniondemocrat.com . Follow him on Twitter @gsepinsonora.

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