Multi-million-dollar illegal pot grow operation seized

OPNET: Six addresses had over 3,100 plants, about 370 pounds of processed marijuana

PORT ANGELES — Authorities have disrupted a multi-million-dollar illegal marijuana growing and processing operation they said was connected with organized crime, confiscating more than 3,000 plants at six Port Angeles-area addresses with more pot seizures possible in coming weeks, Clallam County Sheriff’s Office officials said Thursday.

The Olympic Peninsula Narcotics Enforcement Team, in cooperation with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Seattle and Homeland Security Investigations, executed search warrants at the six indoor locations Monday and Tuesday, Sheriff Bill Benedict said.

They revealed grow operations inside residences and outbuildings in the city and urban growth area in the 100 block of North Baker Street, 400 block of Diamond Vista Drive, 4300 block of South Old Mill Road, 3800 block of South Airport Road, 1200 block of West 10th Street and 4300 block of Nicholas Road, Chief Criminal Deputy Brian King said in a subsequent press release.

Detectives seized more than 3,100 growing marijuana plants and about 370 pounds of processed marijuana valued in state at more than $5 million.

If exported to other states, as authorities believe was intended, the marijuana was worth more than $10 million, according to the release.

“Initial inspections of records at the grow locations indicate that the operation has been ongoing for at least three years, generating many millions of dollars of untaxed and illegal profits for the organization,” according to the release.

“This is organized crime,” King said in an interview. “This is going to be an ongoing investigation.”

The owner of the properties, a Port Angeles businessman, was interviewed, Benedict said.

He has not been arrested for investigation of what would be a Class C felony for unlawfully manufacturing marijuana, punishable by up to five years in jail and a $10,000 fine.

“The reason we didn’t arrest him — and we have that discretion — is there is a lot more to this case,” Benedict said.

“We don’t always arrest following a warrant.

“It’s possible he is cooperating with us, it’s possible there are other factors that would play into that decision.”

Two of the grow operation’s “tenders” were interviewed and also not arrested, Benedict said.

“They were not arrested at the time while we are awaiting further developments,” he said.

Smell of marijuana

Benedict said the warrants were served following a three-year investigation sparked by neighbors complaining about the “noxious stench” of marijuana growing at the locations, one of which was on North Baker Street in Port Angeles.

“The smell was just unbelievable,” he said.

King said outdoor walls of the grow operations are vented.

“If you live next door to these things, you know,” King said. “There are a lot of complaints that get generated from the public as it relates to these locations.”

Suspicious activity was reported at the six properties, King said.

Benedict estimated that $5 million to $15 million worth of marijuana a year has been shipped out of state from the grow operation, which avoided state regulation.

Voters made marijuana legal in Washington state in 2012 under Initiative 502.

Investigation ongoing

King said the investigation is ongoing and extends well beyond the borders of Clallam County.

“We’re still processing stuff and may do more search warrants,” King said.

“It could expand to other individuals.

“We know of more illicit marijuana growing operations in our county that are tied to these residences.”

Said Benedict: “There’s more to come.”

King said the investigation was focusing Thursday on documents such as bank records, power bills, receipts and ledgers.

He said black market marijuana is profitable because illegal growers, producers and sellers are not subject to the heavy taxes — about 45 percent in taxes from seed to sale — paid by state marijuana license holders.

One plant can yield about 1 pound of marijuana, King said.

“Its black market value is tremendous, especially when it gets cultivated, processed and delivered to other states,” he said.

“It’s a slap in the face to legitimate growers, processors and retailers who are really trying to run a legal and really highly regulated businesses,” King said.

“Legitimate business owners are struggling because of these illicit growers, not to mention there are many safety hazards associated with these illicit grows.”

Buildings housing the grow operations were extensively remodeled to make them suitable only for growing marijuana, authorities said.

“There are extreme electrical hazards that exist in these homes,” King said.

“They are uninhabitable, and they are occurring, many of them, in residential neighborhoods.”

Electric utility personnel from Clallam County Public Utility District and Port Angeles Light Operations were called out to five of the addresses to disable utility service and red-tag the properties, King said.

A red-tagged structure has been severely damaged and is too dangerous to inhabit.

Several agencies assisted in serving the warrants. They included the Clallam County and Jefferson County sheriff’s offices, the State Patrol, and the Port Angeles, Sequim, and Port Townsend police departments.

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Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at [email protected].

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