Mendocino marijuana raids reflect California’s stepped-up enforcement on illegal operators
The chuff chuff sound of whirring helicopter rotors has for generations sent blood pressures rising in Mendocino County’s backcountry communities, where people have long made their livelihoods growing cannabis - some lawfully and many not.
The first years of marijuana’s legalization in California, ushered in by voters in 2016, brought a brief reprieve from those large-scale law enforcement missions to eradicate illegally grown marijuana, in part due to record-breaking wildfires in the region and a reorganization of the agencies involved in the missions.
But this week, the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office announced it had cut down more than 42,000 marijuana plants on nearly 30 properties in the Eel River watershed, marking the first major multiagency operation investigating illegal cultivation and environmental crimes to take place in the county since it was legalized in the state.
The raids come as California has begun shifting enforcement against illegal marijuana operators into higher gear, including a recent crackdown on unpermitted dispensaries in Los Angeles. Cannabis industry leaders have warned that the moves would thwart local efforts to bring longtime growers into the new legal marketplace.
The Mendocino County communities targeted in this month’s operation lie in the heart of the Emerald Triangle, the remote bastion for marijuana cultivation in Northern California. More than 500 entities have received state licenses to grow marijuana in the county, yet the number of unlicensed marijuana farms likely remains in the thousands.
Cannabis industry leaders here said the operation was premature for an industry struggling to adapt to new regulations and that it felt like a resumption of the heavily militarized law enforcement campaigns that for decades targeted marijuana growers in these hills and valleys.
But Sheriff Tom Allman said his teams focused on sites where they spotted evidence of serious environmental crimes such as water theft and polluting the watershed with trash, fuels and pesticides. The investigations targeted properties where people had not even applied for local permits or state licenses to cultivate, he said.
“Is it marijuana enforcement or is it environmental enforcement?” Sheriff Tom Allman said. “There’s a difference, and I think the tide is turning.”
In the aftermath of legalization, marijuana industry leaders had hoped that enforcement of the state’s cannabis cultivation laws would fundamentally change. Where once they had encountered teams of camouflaged and armed peace officers investigating criminal behavior, they envisioned civil operations run by code enforcement officers using warnings, legal notices, fines and penalties to hold people accountable.
But California’s still-thriving illegal marijuana trade has prompted state leaders, including Gov. Gavin Newsom to step up investigations into a range of illegal businesses, from cultivation to retail outlets. The black market businesses are competing with legal operators and siphoning potential tax revenue away from local and state government.
California’s Bureau of Cannabis Control had expected to bring in about $200 million in revenue through application and license fees by January but instead had collected only about $2 million, according to a recent state audit.
Longtime marijuana entrepreneurs say the state is to blame for the fallout. Officials enacted overly burdensome regulations and set tax rates too high, they say.
“The state has built an unworkable program,” said Casey O’Neill, a longtime cannabis farmer and policy chair for the Mendocino Cannabis Alliance, a nonprofit association of farmers and entrepreneurs.
Officials say the lucrative black market is undermining the viability of businesses making large investments to comply with state and local laws.
Earlier this year, Newsom announced he was diverting California National Guard troops away from the state’s southern border with Mexico to support rural law enforcement with additional resources to eradicate illegal marijuana grows, which Newsom said were “getting worse not better.”
“We have to hold accountable those who aren’t participating in the legal market,” Newsom said during a February press conference. “Those illegal grows are manifesting, getting bigger, more stubborn and acute.”
Those National Guard troops, their resources and helicopters assisted Mendocino County’s four-day operation, dubbed “Operation Clean Sweep,” which concluded last week. More than 100 personnel from the Sheriff’s Office, National Guard and several state agencies including scientists from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife took part.