Cannabis cultivators are getting slammed by the state and its draconian enforcement actions. As a longtime grower put it, “This government is turning all us hippies into Libertarians!”

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. 

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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.

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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. 

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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! 

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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!”

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Though there’s millennia of history behind the plant, the process, and the people whose livelihoods depend on it, the corporatization of cannabis is still very much in its infancy. This is equally thrilling and daunting. There’s promise and potential to correct social stigmas and injustices, to negate environmentally harmful agriculture practices, and to promote a plant with universal healing qualities. There’s also ample opportunity for big companies to elbow in: corporations are oozing in, focused on the bottom line with little regard for honoring the plant’s history, purpose, and potential. Surprising no one, the California cannabis industry is picking up steam to become a race to the quickest buck, abandoning the rich history, potent healing potential and complex social realities of the plant to dry up in the desert dust.   It is time to get back to the roots of this industry.    I had the privilege of spending a hot August day with the Humboldt County Grower’s Alliance (HCGA). My goal was to absorb all that Humboldt County and its cannabis community had to offer — to talk to farmers, to smell their flowering plants, to indulge in the abundance of natural beauty that is their every day. As it goes, we started the day at the HCGA office in Eureka. Walking out the offices’ white wooden door, we readied ourselves to tour cannabis country. Driving down the 101 past Ferndale, we made our way towards the coast on Mattole road. There, we were treated to some of the most spectacular views along the Lost Trails of the Pacific Ocean. It felt like we had been transported to another world. From there, we cut back inland towards Petrolia. The grandeur of the Mattole Valley became more apparent with every sharp turn and steep hill we climbed in the Subaru. This valley has been the epicenter of California’s cannabis industry since it’s community fled north from San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s to live off the land. It was incredible to witness it for the first time with my own eyes. “This wasn’t a profiteering machine, it was getting back to the land, being self sufficient, and growing some cannabis to help promote and fund a vision of community.” — Terra Carter, Executive Director of HCGA says.  During one of the loudest and most volatile times in this country’s history, Humboldt County cannabis flourished in a community built on a back-to-the-earth ethos. Cannabis, among seasonal vegetables, herbs, and animals provided these communities and families the resources to live in such remote locations.  What transpired over the next few decades in this valley sounds like it was ripped from a summer blockbuster. With the ineptly named War on Drugs came military aircraft humming over the valley. The US government flew two U2s[1] over Humboldt to build their battle plan against farmers. This is the same spy plane they flew over the USSR. Helicopters buzzed through the valley searching for plants. Sometimes, they came so low that their noise and resulting vibrations would break windows and knock down houses. Humboldt was like a war zone, complete with a few farmers holding their ground by gun. Others hid in the woods or fled from their property with their families- some temporarily, and others permanently.  As the raids continued farmers developed innovative ways to keep their community and livelihoods going: some started to grow their plants on platforms high in the trees, others constantly scanned the skies, ready to pull their plants back from the fields and under the cover of the forest at a moment’s notice. As we drove deeper into the valley, I began to see the lengths to which farmers went to set their roots, both familial and agricultural, as far out of reach as possible. Seclusion protected these families from the National Guard and from the bad players in the area taking plants, money, and whatever else they fancied by force. Though I met with people who were ostensibly breaking the law, I did not get the sense I was surrounded by criminals — because I wasn’t. Humboldt (like the rest of California, the USA, and the world) definitely has had their fair share of criminals in the industry, but for the most part this is a community of outlaws. They were never criminals. They simply did not have the legal infrastructure in place to run their business. It’s important to remember this distinction, especially since every person in the cannabis industry today is a federal outlaw. After driving for miles on dirt roads wrapped tightly around the mountain, we came across a signless intersection. We turned left up a steep one-lane road that we followed for a mile. At the peak we found cleared land and a single structure atop. “Welcome to DewPoint,” crowed the fearless, smiling Andelain. She and her husband are second and third generation farmers. They grew up overlooking the Mattole Valley and now live on a sustainable mountain property they built themselves. Nestled amid the mountains for a decade, their property relies entirely on solar energy for all of their electrical needs. Andelain likes to boast that her cannabis is fully sun-grown. Meaning, not only do they grow without any artificial lights, but even the water irrigation pump is powered by the sun. Andelain and her husband remember this mountain as a thriving community since their earliest days in the area. “It wasn’t just your parents raising you, but your neighbors, and the people at the school and fire department. This was the community our parents started building with their cannabis businesses, and the one we continue to invest in today.”- Andelain During the years of quasi warfare in the Mattole Valley, Andelain remembers the fear she felt helping in her family’s garden, where they grew vegetables, fruits, and cannabis. “My earliest memory was being in the garden and hearing the ‘copter coming down the valley and my dad running through the garden thinking ‘That’s weird I never heard my dad move like that’. I remember my dads arm swooping around my body and pulling me up and running into the bushes with his hand around my mouth. Men in armor with rifles repelled down, cut our plants, and flew away. After that, my family moved into town. We lost everything we had on that mountain” Now, Andelain has the opportunity to carry out her life’s long purpose and passion: to bring high quality medicine and peace to those who need it, legally. Pure as her mission is, it is accompanied with bureaucratic side effects.   Unsurprisingly, California has some of the most extensive environmental laws in the country. To touch the land costs thousands of dollars in permitting and licensing. This is for good reason. California produces 17% of the country’s food and is constantly on the verge of drought. A state that is already reeling from the planet’s warming and is responsible for feeding nearly 1/5 of the country, it’s a sobering reality to consider placing an added burden on a state that’s already stretched thin on agricultural resources. Thankfully, California is taking some small but meaningful steps to abate this disaster. “Regulation has now given us the opportunity to be the most sustainably grown agriculture product in the world” says Carver. Most farms we saw in Humboldt have set up rain capture and storage containers to have water available throughout the dry months without needing to suck it out of aquifers.  The special sauce of Humboldt County Cannabis that can’t be replicated or matched is it’s heritage. This growing region not only sprouted on off-the-grid farms- where all energy had to be produced on site and trash had to be at a minimum, with the closest garbage drop is sometimes 45 minutes away. But, it has also survived and evolved through military raids and environmentally disastrous moments.  Humboldt has suffered. Their Redwood forests were indiscriminately leveled by industrial logging companies, while their rivers were overfished by commercial fishing companies. The community that lived off these lands did not stand for it. Several organizations, inside and outside the cannabis industry, banded together to protest these industries and their actions- one of which being the infamous 738-day tree-sit by Julia Butterfly. These industries decimated the environment- pushing the river’s salmon population close to extinction and polluting its waters with industrial runoff.  After years of fighting for and implementing corrective policies and regulations, we were able to take a break in the heat of the day to go swimming in the now clear, crisp, and cool Mattole river. While the river and surrounding environment is healing itself, so to speak, this time around, there are no guarantees that nature can continually bounce back from the impact of big industry. I could see it in the way everyone talked about being able to swim in the river, that being able to dunk our heads into its crisp water, is a luxury that should never be taken for granted. To me, it was a sign that with dedicated advocates, smart policy, and responsible farming and business practices, supporting a cannabis industry in the region without impacting the environment is possible. With the California cannabis industry blooming in a world where the Amazon is burning, communities experience systemic water shortages, and corporations prioritize profit over people, there has never been a time where being an educated and active consumer is more important.  Being a conscious consumer does make a difference: we are sowing the seeds from which the cannabis industry will continue to grow.