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