Lake County’s voter-approved marijuana-cultivation ordinance has been in effect for less than two months but it already is generating a whirlwind of controversy, including allegations of constitutional rights violations, at least one lawsuit and a ballot measure aimed at replacing the regulations with more lenient rules.
The most current and heated point of contention stems from a series of policing operations conducted this month to enforce the new ordinance, approved as Measure N by voters in June. Measure N banned outdoor marijuana gardens in residential neighborhoods and “community growth boundaries.” It allows outdoor cultivation on parcels larger than an acre with a maximum of 48 plants on agricultural parcels larger than 20 acres.
Area residents descended on the county Board of Supervisors this week, complaining that law enforcement officers entered dozens of properties and eradicated pot plants without warrants or giving the property owners prior warning, which they generally give when abating other nuisances when conditions do not pose a danger to health or safety.
“This is against our constitutional rights,” said a man who identified himself during the meeting only as Edwin. Some admitted they were out of compliance with the new regulations but said that didn’t warrant the treatment to which they were subjected.
San Francisco attorney Joe Elford said Wednesday he will be filing a federal lawsuit next week on behalf of about a half-dozen people whose properties were raided.
He will be seeking an injunction to halt the warrantless searches, which he said violated the citizens’ rights to due process and freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures.
Elford said he’s not planning to tackle the ordinance itself in the lawsuit, just the way it is being enforced.
During Tuesday’s supervisors’ meeting, county staff and law enforcement officials defended the raids, saying they believed they were authorized by the ordinance. State Fish and Wildlife Warden Loren Freeman said he had reason to suspect the residents they visited were out of compliance. The targets were chosen based on factors that included high water usage, newly built fences and visible pot plants.
Freeman said some people had used as much as 200,000 gallons of water in four months. “It should have been below 50,000 gallons,” he said.
Marijuana plants are thirsty. Each uses about 10 gallons of water a day, Freeman said. Pot cultivation has been blamed for draining several watersheds in Mendocino and Humboldt counties. Spring Valley — which generated 30 marijuana raids and most of the complaints — is short on water because of the drought and can’t afford that kind of usage, he said.
The reservoir that supplies Spring Valley, north of Clearlake Oaks, is at 3 percent of capacity, Freeman said.
Freeman and Richard Coel, who heads the county Planning Department, also said the landowners who were contacted gave permission to search their property after law enforcement arrived. But not everyone was home at the time, Elford said.
“About half the people they abated weren’t home so they couldn’t possibly have given their consent,” he said.
Lake County supervisors directed staff to investigate the allegations and evaluate whether changes should be made. The Lake County Sheriff’s Office also is investigating the allegations and methods used to enforce the ordinance, Undersheriff Chris Macedo said.
He said the ordinance gives the county authority to immediately or “summarily” abate gardens that don’t comply with its rules, but if that violates federal law, it will be changed.
How to report suspected price gouging in Sonoma County
Email the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office through the website, da.sonoma-county.org, or call 707-565-2311.