A Southern California sheriff’s department made a bust on what its owners had previously presented as a hemp field, uncovering 10 million marijuana plants with “an estimated value of over $1 billion.” On October 25, law enforcement descended on the fields whose growers had claimed to be growing non-psychoactive hemp. They were, in fact, raising marijuana plants that clocked in at over the .3 percent THC content allowed under California law.

The investigation was catalyzed by a tip sent to the Kern County Sheriff’s Office about 11 fields sprawling out over 459 acres in the small town of Arvin. An investigation was launched in collaboration with the FBI and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife that resulted in the October 25 search warrants.

“Preliminary testing showed the levels of THC in these fields were well over the legal limit for industrial hemp production and were in fact cannabis,” announced the Kern County Sheriff’s Office in a Facebook post. “The investigation is ongoing.”

California law does allow for THC content over .3 percent if the hemp is being grown for research purposes.

The announcement did not specify how the farmers came to be growing the unlicensed cannabis. But if they were confused over the THC content of their own product, they wouldn’t be the first in the country to employ the excuse. In February, Idaho state police confiscated 6,701 pounds of marijuana they discovered in the truck of a Colorado company at a weigh station. The company that owned the plant, Big Sky Scientific, said that it had tested the crop via 19 different samples that concluded the cannabis’ THC level stood at .043 percent.

Confusion About Cultivation

Farmers who are marijuana producers are not the only ones who have displayed confusion over the THC content of their products. Law enforcement agencies in Florida and Texas have concluded that their agencies lack the testing technology to distinguish between hemp and marijuana, which has led to a de-prioritization of small-time possession arrests.

And consider the criminal element similarly befuddled. Earlier this year in Fresno County, there were reports of hemp theft by thieves who were apparently under the impression that their heist involved psychoactive cannabis.

Comments made on the sheriff’s post announcing the Arvin bust wondered whether the growers themselves had known the THC content of their own crop. More than a few questioned law enforcement’s priorities when it came to the bust. “What a Ducking [sic] waste of time!!” wrote one user named Lucy Cartagena. “The war on drugs does NOT WORK!!”

But enforcement of laws surrounding hemp production can also be seen as law enforcement’s attempt to protect cannabis farmers operating within legal guidelines. Much attention (including an October 27 program that aired on CBS) has been given to the difficulties that legal California growers are having when it comes to competing with the state’s still robust illegal market. A report released in September concluded that illegal sellers continue to outnumber the state’s licensed retailers by a ratio of almost three to one. 

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