Pot production in Sonoma County turns residential, generating nuisances and crime

As pot cultivation has become an entrenched reality in North Coast neighborhoods, residents, lawyers and policymakers are grappling with the uneasy distinction between what’s legal and what’s not.|

Marilyn Holmes watched with concern as her neighbor’s leafy green marijuana plants first began inching over the tall fence and their stinky odor spread through the west Santa Rosa neighborhood.

Four years and four marijuana harvests later, Holmes keeps adding to a pile of folders documenting phone calls to the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, meetings with county officials and attempts to talk with her neighbors about their marijuana plants.

She views the pot garden as a nuisance that diminishes the quality of life on her street and puts the whole neighborhood at risk of robbery, burglary and other crimes.

“They have brought in a whole aura of suspicion and discomfort among neighbors,” said Holmes, 72. “There are legit uses, but I doubt that here.”

Her next-door neighbor says otherwise.

A woman, who identified herself only as Esther, said her three adult daughters grow medical marijuana with doctor recommendations. She pointed out that other neighbors on the street grow marijuana as well and she defended their right to do so, noting that they say they’ve drawn no crime to the neighborhood.

“Only this woman has complained about the bad smell,” Esther said in Spanish. “She’s complained about everything.”

As marijuana cultivation has become an entrenched reality in North Coast neighborhoods, residents, lawyers and policymakers are grappling with the uneasy distinction between what’s legal and what’s not.

On one side of the fence, residents complain they are forced to live next to pot production facilities in residential neighborhoods. On the other, people say they are tending plants legally to treat real health ailments, a use approved by California voters in 1996. Still others exploit medical cannabis laws, filling entire houses with irrigation and lighting systems to grow pot.

Those operations have drawn considerable violence into residential areas, including a predawn shootout at a Rincon Valley home two weeks ago. The home’s resident, who shot and killed a man trying to break down his door, is now facing pot cultivation charges. An alleged accomplice of one of the reported intruders has been charged with murder.

Crafting pot policy

Local government leaders are now struggling with how to deal with marijuana production in their communities.

In February, Clearlake city officials banned marijuana cultivation altogether - becoming the fourth city or county in the state to do so - in an attempt to stem the crime and nuisance issues they said had become rampant in the Lake County community of about 15,000 people.

Representatives from five Northern California counties met last week in Santa Rosa with government lawyers and officials from Colorado, where recreational use of marijuana is legal. Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Susan Gorin, who was at the meeting, said local officials want to prepare for the possibility that California voters could legalize marijuana in 2016.

In the meantime, Gorin and Supervisor David Rabbitt are studying how the county should address the problems associated with pot - from home-invasion robberies to land poaching in rural areas - while protecting patients’ access to medical marijuana. That could include changes to the county ordinance governing cultivation, which the board failed to revise two years ago after an uproar from cannabis advocates.

“It doesn’t matter if we support cultivation of medicinal cannabis or not; we are all concerned about the public safety challenges,” Gorin said.

Gorin’s district includes the Acacia Lane house where the deadly Feb. 23 shootout revealed a large-scale marijuana processing operation with a hash oil lab, cocaine, cash and guns, according to police.

As dusk fell Friday on Acacia Lane, the scene was considerably less menacing.

A pair of turkeys gobbled in a field of clover along the dead-end street, which lacks sidewalks in places and turns into a gravel road. Notices are posted on the fences that surround the site of the shootout - two adjacent houses linked to drug sales by investigators. The notices mention electrical system hazards and state that electricity was disconnected.

Cody Kyle, a 24-year-old resident who lives next door, said the tenants of the adjacent pair of properties recently built the fences to surround the parcels. Kyle said he and other neighbors were aware that marijuana was being grown at various times on different properties on the rural lane. For the most part, he said, the neighborhood has not experienced major crimes until the recent shooting.

“I don’t have a problem with people growing marijuana, but guns and a firefight, to me that is much scarier,” Kyle said.

Santa Rosa Police Sgt. Dave Linscomb said the violent crimes team has investigated at least five home-invasion robberies since September involving marijuana, and they suspect many more go unreported. Of those, only one involved a situation in which no marijuana was found, according to police reports.

“They are always violent, they usually involve guns, although most resolve without people getting killed,” Linscomb said.

Protecting access

The crimes can have widespread, negative impact on the public image of medical marijuana use, advocates acknowledge.

Nobody wants homes invaded and people killed because of marijuana, especially medical cannabis users, said Sarah Shrader, who chairs the Sonoma County chapter of Americans for Safe Access, a medical cannabis advocacy group.

Twenty people sat in folding chairs at the Arlene Francis Center in Santa Rosa’s Railroad Square neighborhood Thursday night for the group’s monthly meeting. Shrader gave an update on proposed bills, including proposals to allow medical cannabis users to receive organ transplants and laws that would regulate the commercial use and production of marijuana in anticipation that recreational use becomes legal.

Craig Litwin with Citizens for Responsible Access told the group that his organization was at the highest sponsorship level for the Sonoma County Democrat Party’s annual crab feed last month, making a $1,500 donation to secure a 16-person table.

“We want to be at the table when elected officials make policy,” said Litwin, a former Sebastopol city councilman.

One man said that Santa Rosa police in November raided his two rented homes where he was growing marijuana for a group of patients, but the officers left behind the paperwork he said proved the plants were being grown legally for patients with doctors’ recommendations.

Shrader asked people to attend the court hearings as a show of support for the defendants.

“The most dangerous thing about (marijuana) is it’s illegal,” said Steven, a 61-year-old Santa Rosa resident who didn’t want to be identified as a medical marijuana patient because he is looking for work.

Local marijuana advocates are gearing up to fight further limitations on cultivation in Sonoma County, even as they prepare for the possibility of legalization.

Mood shift since 2012

Gorin said the political climate is different than it was in 2012 when the Board of Supervisors last tried to limit marijuana cultivation. That year, a complaint about rampant pot gardens in a southwest Santa Rosa neighborhood triggered the county’s largest-ever law enforcement operation targeting residential marijuana farms. A team of 150 law enforcement agents seized more than 1,000 plants from 32 homes off Moorland Avenue, just south of the Corby Auto Mall.

Led by Supervisor Shirlee Zane and then-Supervisor Valerie Brown, the 2012 effort failed after an outpouring of criticism from advocates, who said the supervisors didn’t consult medical marijuana users about how changes to the current ordinance would impact them.

“That conversation blew up, and nothing was accomplished,” Gorin said.

Today, there’s a sense that residents are fed up with crime and environmental problems associated with illegal pot, and legalization for recreational use is gaining popularity, she said.

And this time around, Gorin said she and Rabbitt are talking about forming a group of stakeholders involved in medical cannabis issues to work with them. Although she said they had only just begun to study the issues, they will keep the possibility of legalization in mind as they develop a proposal to bring to the Board of Supervisors.

“There are so many issues with cultivation: Do we cultivate indoors, do we cultivate outdoors? Do we allow the cultivation in neighborhoods? Do we regulate and keep the number of plants in residential areas very small? Do we require cultivation in commercial areas or agricultural areas?” Gorin said.

Supervisor Efren Carrillo, whose district includes Holmes’ west Santa Rosa neighborhood, said that he’s hopeful the county can rein in marijuana cultivation in dense residential areas. Among county supervisors, Carrillo in the past has been less supportive of efforts to tightly regulate marijuana sales and cultivation.

“What we have on the books today is not working. We need to really revise our policies to curtail this type of activity,” Carrillo said.

But restrictions on growing are not popular with medical cannabis activists who fear that new regulations could pave the way for industrial marijuana cultivation and make it impossible for people to plant pot gardens for personal use.

“We will always support the right of patients to grow outdoors,” said Mary Pat Jacobs, a spokeswoman for Sonoma Alliance for Medical Marijuana. “We are opposed to illegal grows and the conversion of homes into grow houses.”

Identifying problems

Sonoma County Sheriff Steve Freitas said it was too early for him to comment on whether changes to local ordinances might help law enforcement stem marijuana-related crime. But he said the violence needs to be addressed.

“There is an extreme amount of violence - there have been deaths just recently - tied to marijuana, and I think we overall as law enforcement, the local government and the community altogether, need to get that under control,” Freitas said.

The problem is that current laws limiting marijuana use have driven up its price on the black market, said Sebastopol City Councilman Robert Jacob, an outspoken advocate of medical marijuana and executive director of Sonoma County’s Peace in Medicine dispensaries as well as the San Francisco Patient and Resource Center.

Marijuana-related crime can only be stemmed once regulations shed “daylight and create transparency around cannabis production,” he said.

Jacob said that if marijuana were treated like wine grapes, “there would be multiple economic impact reports, huge stakeholder meetings and we would bring in consultants to make sure we cross all the T’s and dot the I’s.”

“Everyone is realizing that if medical cannabis isn’t the No. 1 cash crop in Sonoma County, it’s at minimum No. 2,” Jacob said.

For now, that cash crop is growing in untold numbers behind closed doors and shade-drawn windows.

In a Glen Ellen neighborhood, neighbors have a common list of complaints about the pungent odor and risk of crime brought by a man who moved into a house in September and set up a garden of potted marijuana plants in the backyard.

None of the residents wanted to be identified because they didn’t want to alert potential criminals to their neighborhood.

The resident responsible for the garden couldn’t be reached. His father, who owns the property, said he was not involved in his son’s marijuana operation and would not want it grown at his home nearby.

“Every summer, you can smell it everywhere you drive. It is everywhere. It doesn’t bother me, but I don’t want it on my property,” said owner Terry Epperson. “The medical stuff is legal now in California. They’re getting ready to take the next steps.”

Eloísa Ruano González contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to remove an incorrect reference to the reason Terry Epperson purchased a home in Glen Ellen where his son lived.

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