Mendocino County officials surprised by tribe’s plans for pot farm
News that a Mendocino County Pomo tribe is building a $10 million indoor marijuana- cultivation facility on its rancheria just north of Ukiah has been met with a mix of surprise, concern and a sense it was inevitable as pot growing becomes increasingly common and legal.
“The tribes are just getting out ahead of the game” in preparation for the eventual legalization of marijuana for all uses in California, Mendocino County Supervisor Dan Hamburg said.
“Legalization is coming. That’s where we’re headed,” said Dale Gieringer, state coordinator for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Medical marijuana has been legal in California for 18 years and, after several failed attempts, a ballot measure aimed at legalizing recreational use is widely expected to pass in 2016. About two dozen states have decriminalized or legalized marijuana in some manner.
Many thought American tobacco companies would take the lead with large-scale operations and attempt to monopolize the cannabis business, Hamburg said.
“It looks like it’ll be the tribes,” he said.
The Pinoleville Pomo Nation has contracted with Colorado- based United Cannabis and Kansas-based FoxBarry Farms to grow thousands of marijuana plants in greenhouses on its 99-acre rancheria. FoxBarry, which also invests in tribal casinos, is financing and managing the project.
Other venture capitalists are getting into the pot business. Founders Fund, a firm known for backing companies like Facebook, has invested undisclosed millions in Privateer Holdings, a Seattle private equity firm focused on marijuana.
Pinoleville is believed to be the first California tribe to build a large cannabis-growing facility, but at least two more are planned elsewhere in the state by the same corporations responsible for the Ukiah operation. They have not divulged the locations, other than they would be in Central and Southern California.
The Ukiah operation, which will feature a 110,000-square-foot facility on nearly 2.5 acres, is scheduled to open in February, representatives of the groups said. They did not say exactly where the greenhouses would be, but only about a third of the rancheria is held in federal trust, which frees the companies from following all local and most state regulations.
The lack of accountability is what concerns Mendocino County officials.
“They can do whatever they want,” Mendocino County Chief Executive Officer Carmel Angelo said. The tribe will be exempt from the county’s zoning ordinance aimed at controlling the number and locations of marijuana plants grown for medical use. In addition to the rancheria property, the tribe also owns 100 acres near Ukiah High School, for which it is seeking trust status.
The tribe did not notify county officials of its plans, so news of the pot-growing facility caught them off guard.
“I’m a bit taken aback,” said county Supervisor Carre Brown. She noted that many of the tribes consult with the county about development projects as a courtesy, even though they’re exempt from its planning process.
Hamburg said he also didn’t know about the project but has expected something like it to eventually happen.
“None of this really surprises me,” he said. “I just wish there was more we could do about it.”
Hamburg said he’d prefer that the county have some control over marijuana production and the ability to collect taxes on the product. He’d also prefer to see smaller, outdoor growing operations.
“My heart is really with the small grower community,” Hamburg said. He also believes that outdoor gardens create fewer environmental impacts than indoor farms.
“From an ecological perspective, that does not sit well with me,” Hamburg said of the tribe’s operation.
County officials also worry that other tribes will follow suit and cannabis-growing operations will proliferate, much as casinos have.
But it’s still too soon to tell whether federal officials - who continue to consider marijuana illegal - will allow such large-scale production to take place, even though they appeared last month to give the tribes the green light, Gieringer said.
In a memorandum produced at the request of tribes seeking clarification on the marijuana issue, the U.S. Department of Justice essentially said it’s up to tribes, as sovereign nations, to decide whether marijuana is legal or not on their lands.
But the memorandum also states that there’s nothing preventing U.S. authorities from enforcing federal law in “Indian Country.” And, in recent years, federal agencies have cracked down on large-scale pot production operations in the Bay Area.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if the Department of Justice took an interest” in the tribe’s operation, Gieringer said.
Neither state nor U.S. Department of Justice officials could be reached for comment Friday.