Narcotics task force agents confiscated 350 marijuana plants worth as much as $1.4 million early Wednesday from a grove nestled in a populated area just a mile south of the Westfield North County Shopping Mall in Escondido.
The city of San Diego owns the 40-acre property and leases it to Big Trees Nursery Inc., a tree-growing company that leases part of the land to Evergreen Nursery. The marijuana grove is adjacent to the nursery and a short distance from busy Interstate 15.
Neither of the companies is suspected of being involved in the pot operation.
The plants, which were one foot to 8 feet high and in various stages of growth, were planted along a trail just 100 yards from Highland Valley Road off Pomerado Road in a wild tangle of overgrown brush and trees that shielded the plants from sight.
Dressed from head to toe in camouflage, wearing gloves and bandannas over their heads, the 10 agents hiked through the brush and pulled out each plant they found. The operation took about an hour and a half.
Among the plants, they also found cans of Fosfuro de Zinc, a rat poison illegal in the United States, scattered about, as well as plant fertilizer and a shovel.
Wednesday’s raid was carried out by members of the San Diego County Narcotics Task Force, which includes personnel from the Drug Enforcement Administration , Border Patrol, Postal Inspector’s Office, Bureau of Land Management, San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, San Diego Police Department and most police agencies in the region.
This was the task force’s second confiscation this week and the 40th such operation this year.
Agents said they do not have a suspect in Wednesday’s seizure and that the investigation is ongoing.
Big Trees Nursery owner Charlie Jancic, who arrived during the raid, said he had no idea the drugs were being grown on the property. ”I’m not surprised but I’m not happy,” Jancic said.
The marijuana grower had apparently tapped into Jancic’s well and ran a trail of hose to irrigate the plants, which were planted five to six feet apart along a path that meandered for about a mile and a quarter through the thick brush.
“So besides the drugs, we may have water theft,” said DEA spokeswoman Eileen Zeidler.
Jancic said he did not notice an increase in his water bill, which he said fluctuates depending on the time of year and other factors.
Once a growing operation is found, task force agents plan the best way to attack it, everything from where they should park their cars to how many people to bring to pull out the plants, Zeidler said.
Before Wednesday’s raid, San Diego city officials were told of the planned operation on the San Pasqual Valley property. In cases where the marijuana plants are found growing on private property, officers may need a warrant depending on the circumstances, Zeidler said.
“We operate within the legal guidelines,” she said. “Nothing is ever exactly the same.”
One plant can net from a half pound to a pound of the sought-after potent buds that sell for an average of $4,000 per pound, said Steve Reed, a Sheriff’s Department detective and task force member since 1987.
Reed said the task force’s marijuana seizures have averaged around 325,000 plants per year for the past 15 years.
So far this year, the task force has seized more than 115,000 plants worth more than $462 million, according to the DEA.
In 2009, more than 517,000 plants were seized, worth an estimated $2 billion up. That was up from 305,000 plants seized in 2008. They were worth $1.2 billion.
Reed said the number of plants seized fluctuates and depends on a variety of factors, including the weather and the transient nature of the growers.
Traditionally, much of the pot seized has been grown on government-owned land in East County and North County, including Palomar Mountain and the Cleveland National Forest.
Reed said that poses a danger to people who may just be out for a hike when they stumble upon a marijuana operation.
“In one out of 10, we find some kind of weapon,” he said.
Pot-growing operations can harm the environment because in many cases native vegetation is cleared to make way for them, officials said. The potent pesticides and other chemicals used on the plants also can leach into the water table.
The outdoor growing season is typically May through October. Law enforcement officers often find the growing operations during routine helicopter patrols of the county. Reed, known for his “phenomenal eye,” can spot marijuana growing simply by the shade of green of the plants, Zeidler said.
It typically takes about 90 days for the plants to mature. Often the people responsible for growing the marijuana are not on site when the plants are removed. Task force agents try to identify those individuals responsible for the operation.
This year, 73 people have been arrested in connection with outdoor pot-growing operations. There were 107 arrests in 2009 and 146 in 2008, DEA officials said.
After the pot is seized, it is kept as evidence for cases that are being prosecuted and then destroyed. Zeidler didn’t want to elaborate on where the drugs are stored or how it is destroyed. People caught growing marijuana typically face state charges such as cultivation of marijuana and possession of marijuana for sale.
By Debbi Baker , UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
Karen Kucher , UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
Originally published July 28, 2010 at 5:18 p.m., updated July 28, 2010 at 5:51 p.m.