There is a great deal of good news on the cannabis front these days, on a national and international scale. The World Health Organization has recommended to the United Nation that it recognizes the medicinal value of cannabis for traditional medicines. Numerous presidential candidates endorse some form of legalization. Even the US Senate is considering a cannabis banking bill. There seems to be hope for cannabis users worldwide.
Simultaneously, though, cannabis cultivators are getting slammed here in the Emerald Triangle. Currently, there are draconian enforcement actions underway, with helicopters flown by the National Guard assisting local police and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to invade, intimidate, and abate illegal cannabis growers. Trinity, Humboldt, and Mendocino Counties — the three jewels in the Emerald Triangle — have all recently experienced law enforcement intervention at an unprecedented scale. The authorities justify their actions by stating that illegal grows are responsible for significant environmental degradation in the watersheds of Northern California.
In June, the pressure was felt in Trinity County, where officials served 15 warrants and detained 23 suspects. According to Fish and Wildlife Information Officer Janice Mackey, “The operations [in Hayfork, Trinity County] yielded an estimated 12,548 illegal marijuana plants, 801 pounds of processed marijuana, 15 firearms, and $435,875 in U.S. currency.”
Last weekend, a community meeting was held at the Mateel Center in Southern Humboldt County to discuss the issue. Sheriff William Honsal was present, and the man has the air of a politician. Let’s just say, when the movie is made, Leonardo DiCaprio will play his part. He’s slick and handsome, but can you believe a word he says? One upset Humboldite called him “an outright liar” to his face, and the man didn’t even wince. While he apologized that he “cannot take away the PTSD you all feel from previous years of raids,” he stated that they will not give warnings in advance about low-flying helicopters manned with military crews.
“If you have your permits, there is no reason to fear,” he assured the audience of about 70 people, most with grey hair. These were OG growers who endured the CAMP raids of the 1980s, and they are still suffering today. As moderator Bonnie Blackberry described it, “We’ve had military helicopters rolling through lately like big Harleys.” It’s deja vu all over again — a flashback to the apex of the War on Drugs. For the legally-permitted growers and regular citizens, it is just as hellish.
Offering a different point of view, John Ford, Humboldt County Director of Code Enforcement from the Department of Building and Planning, said, “We were originally only after the large egregious grows, but now there are fewer of them and they are harder to find. So instead we are focusing on growers who have submitted [license] applications, but have not progressed. I think 238 have not responded to previous violations — that’s who we are after.”
Yet the low-flying helicopters, mostly manned by National Guard, are frightening to all citizens of the Emerald Triangle. The Sheriff Departments and Department of Fish and Wildlife can issue search warrants and call in the National Guard, along with other agencies when appropriate, such as Environmental Health, Cal Fire, and the California State Water Resources Control Board. Several of the citizen speakers at the event had trembling voices as they raised their serious concerns.
“Winning through intimidation must stop!” exclaimed local Dottie Russell. “Southern Humboldt has crashed and burned; businesses are down about 60%,” she glumly reported. John Ford didn't seem to hear her.
The Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office recently disclosed that their enforcement efficiency had increased 700% since the start of 2018, when they began to issue Notice to Abate orders to farmers who had not signed up for a cannabis cultivation license. The notice informs the grower that they must pay steep fines starting at $10,000 per day, with a limit of $900,000. They have 10 days to appeal or to remove their crops. Most of these notices were for alleged environmental violations, such as previously-installed culverts, road grading, or un-permitted diversion of water from springs, ponds, and creeks.
Since cannabis is now legal in California, these actions are civil actions, not criminal actions. So the Notice to Abate is quite efficient, because there is no need for a costly convoy of sheriffs in SUVs with aerial support. According to John Ford, “a notice comes in the mail, is posted on the gate, and gets listed in the local paper." Since the beginning of 2018, Humboldt has sent out 745 such notices, collecting over $3.25 million in fines and abating 376 violations. In other words, the extinction of the legacy grower continues.
Hashmaker Frenchy Cannoli, who came to the Humboldt meet-up because “I want to know what is going on,” made a passionate plea to the Sheriff, the Code Enforcement Director, and Humboldt County Supervisor Estelle Fennell. “I am very dedicated to these people; I need their high quality product to make my resin,” he said in his thick accent. “You are still looking at them as old hippies instead of as the future of a multi-billion dollar industry.” Meanwhile, others lamented being broke after paying for all the necessary permits, consultants, and so much more to become compliant.
“You are not helping the small farmers get their permits,” declared Frenchy.
The result is often bankruptcy, or the county can confiscate property for payment of fines. But, in most cases, even bankruptcy isn’t available, because cannabis is still federally illegal and bankruptcy law is federally controlled. Hence, pot growers need not apply.
In Mendocino County, the tactic is slightly different. In the beginning of July, Sheriff Allman announced he had 2,000 search warrants to serve, with the help of the National Guard that Governor Newsom pulled to ostensibly focus on illegal grows on government land. Not surprisingly, the National Guard has been part of aerial operations against alleged violators on private land, as well. Abatement notices are not being employed. Low-flying Blackhawk helicopters circle properties in the county, looking for illegal cannabis farms, while inciting fear in everyone below. At this time of year, a helicopter can mean fire — and locals take that very seriously.
On July 23rd, Sheriff Allman reported to the Mendocino Board of Supervisors that in one week, he had served 28 warrants, abated over 42,000 plants, and had discovered over 600 environmental violations — with no farm having fewer than 10. Amongst the farmers in the mountains, this action brings back painful memories of aerial raids of the past. It is perceived as a militarization of the cannabis legalization process — so much so that the Mendocino Cannabis Alliance has protested to the Sheriff’s Office, particularly about the 500-foot-high flight limit which is often violated. There have been many reports of helicopters flying and hovering so low that they destroy greenhouses, hoop houses, and vegetable gardens, terrifying animals, children and adults — regardless if those farms were breaking any laws.
Here are excerpts from a statement by Casey O’Neill, Chairman of the Policy Committee for the Mendocino Cannabis Alliance.
I am a child of the drug war; my family had our house ransacked by enforcement just before my third birthday. The ransacking of homes because of a few plants is wrong, and represents a deliberate terrorization of a populace that has suffered from decades of uneven enforcement. Is this what legalization of cannabis means? That people have their homes violated and their belongings thrown about as though by thieves? This is a betrayal of the public trust.
These tactics have been used in the past, which is why the community suffers from PTSD surrounding enforcement activities. There was hope that with legalization, these obscene prohibitionist tactics would end. People are afraid to speak out for fear of reprisals.
Chopping down plants is one thing, ransacking homes is another.
Back in the “Good Old Days,” everyone in the cannabis underground had a more or less equal risk of getting busted. You could do as much jail time for possession as for transport, sale, or cultivation. Mind you, over 600,000 people were arrested last year for possession in the United States. In California, at least, the consumer has little or no chance of being arrested. For the cultivator and the retailer, however, the risk is greater than ever.
All the enforcement agencies are chomping at the bit to finally get their hands on cannabis entrepreneurs — particularly cultivators. There are thousands of little details they can catch you for now. And in July, the ratcheting up of enforcement got a boost from a new statute signed by Gov. Newsom, which imposes a $30,000 a day finefor any code violation by cultivators, manufacturers, distributors, or retailers.
With 17 different state and county agencies scrutinizing applicants trying to go compliant, one hopes they don’t catch you and fine you thousands of dollars a day for not having Workers’ Comp, or the Cal/Osha Injury and Illness Prevention Program, or your payroll account doesn’t balance, or the shipment manifest of flowers doesn’t match the arrival weight.
But it is even worse for the “traditional” grower. With Google Maps, law enforcement doesn’t have to rent a plane or helicopter to count your plants and see environmental infractions. And it is more than just the Sheriff who is on the lookout.
One has to take this in context, because the rollout of the California State cannabis program has been a fiasco. It is hard to blame non-compliant farmers — among them many of our neighbors and friends — because the costs, regulations, and taxes are so onerous and excessive that most legacy small farmers are unable to bear the fees or fill out the complex paperwork. Many of these cultivators don’t even have computers!
Another complicating factor is that an applicant first needs a county permit before applying for a state license. But the county permit can be held up by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife or the State Water Resource Control Board or the State Water Quality Control Board, as they deliberate on your application for water rights to the spring, pond, or stream on your property. Water regulations for cannabis growers have become severely restrictive due to the recurrence of drought years since 2000. What was once legal water use from springs, creeks, and ponds for any landowner is now illegal for cannabis growers, although grape growers, cattle ranchers, and dairy farms have almost no restrictions on water use.
To make it worse, the CDFA California Cannabis Program is understaffed, log-jammed with applications, and has had difficulty getting its computer program for applicants up and running. This has been exacerbated by the totally unrealistic and artificial deadlines imposed by the statutes governing cannabis licensing. To wit, they forced many temporary permits to expire starting in February of 2019, because the applicant’s submission was “deficient” or lacking certain clearances still pending from other agencies. Subsequently, about 5,000 temporary cultivation licenses became “Inactive,” leaving the growers in limbo. With an inactive temporary permit, they couldn’t sell their crops legally. But because they had signed up for the program, they couldn’t revert to selling on the illicit market, either.
The situation became so dire — with most distributors’ and retailers’ temporary permits about to expire — that the California legislature had to quickly pass emergency legislation to extend the expiration deadline. They did this by declaring that henceforth, an applicant for a license no longer needs to have a “Temporary Permit” before applying for an “Annual License.” The new law, SB 97, stated that even without a Temporary, or if the Temporary had expired, cultivators could now apply for an Annual License and be offered a Provisional License so they could stay in business while they were in the process of diligently completing the deficiencies in their Annual License submission (or if they were waiting on a California Environmental Quality Act Negative Mitigation Report). Did you follow that? It’s just as confusing for cultivators, too.
If they hadn't done this, most retailers and distributors in the state would have been unable to do business by August 1st because of "Inactive" temporary permits. The advantage to the state for issuing “Provisionals” is that they can start collecting the license fees on the farmers, which they did not have to pay with a Temporary.
Trying to milk exact numbers from the CDFA database is not easy. We ended up having to more or less hand count and add the totals from many spreadsheets. As of this writing, and as far as we can tell, the state has only extended “Provisional” or “Annual” cultivation licenses to just over 2,000 farms. In addition, there are more than 4,000 of the so-called “Temporary Cultivation Licenses” from the state which are listed as “inactive.” So if there really were 50,000 to 60,000 growers in California prior to 2016, only about three and a half percent currently have cultivation licenses. That leaves somewhere around 50,000 growers still out in the cold. With so many Emerald Triangle cultivators getting busted, how many of them do you suppose are still growing? This is one reason the price of free market cannabis is climbing again.
Casey O’Neill summed it up perfectly:
Community members find themselves caught between the rock of enforcement and the hard place of a convoluted and unaffordable permitting process. Enforcement without opportunity is a broken paradigm.
There is no incentive for coming into compliance. Essentially, all stick and no carrot. As local longtime activist Darryl Cherney stated at the meeting in Humboldt last weekend, “This government is turning all us hippies into Libertarians!”