Close to Home: Regulating pot farms will take collaboration

At the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, we know the process of regulating cannabis cultivation is going to be complicated.|

Editor's note: This Close to Home column is in response to an Aug. 18 Press Democrat story by Julie Johnson titled “Raids of Emerald Triangle marijuana farms could threaten industry's legal compliance.”

At the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, we know the process of regulating cannabis cultivation is going to be complicated. Underscore complicated. We realize this is an important moment in time. We want to collaborate with cultivators and local governments to bring growers into compliance with state laws.

While Department of Fish and Wildlife enforcement is often a focus of debate, let's not forget the Department of Fish and Wildlife has made extensive outreach efforts, including more than 100 presentations to groups of cannabis farmers and other constituents explaining how to acquire proper permits. Our department has also started to build new, nimble permitting processes with dedicated staff to handle the expected onslaught of new permit requests. We expect to receive thousands of such requests.

Since the passage of Proposition 64, along with all of this outreach and preparation for bringing cultivators into permitting, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife has executed approximately 87 cannabis-related search warrants statewide. California is big, about 163,000 square miles. Of these warrants, only 44 were in the Emerald Triangle. In addition, our department has conducted approximately 137 administrative inspections in the Emerald Triangle where no plant eradication took place. The reality is, some people want more enforcement and some want less.

California's natural resources are too valuable to let enforcement efforts take a backseat. We need both cooperation and focused enforcement to protect the environment. The law needs to work in a way that local governments and cultivators can come into compliance collaboratively. We hope everyone agrees with these core principles.

Enforcement decisions are based on decades-old laws that apply to every Californian and are in place to protect fish, wildlife and habitat. We investigate alleged environmental damage by responding to complaints from other law enforcement agencies and the public. We also investigate cultivation in prioritized watersheds to protect endangered fish. We realize eradication creates reaction. In the limited instances where the Department of Fish and Wildlife eradicates plants, it is usually in the worst of the worst situations.

A common narrative is that cannabis cultivators who want to come into compliance are being scared off as enforcement actions happen in their area. This concern is legitimate.

To better understand the issue, we looked at some data. The numbers show well-researched enforcement can lead to an increase in license applications in regions where those efforts are taking place.

In Trinity County, for instance, a conservative estimate is there are 4,000 grows with only 500 commercial cannabis licenses made available by the county. Before enforcement efforts in March, only 97 interest cards had been received. After the enforcement actions, the county received approximately 400 interest cards.

Counties report that many subsequent applications have been suspended for having violations or being incomplete. This is a reoccurring theme where growers become partially engaged but lack documentation to prove legitimacy, underscoring the need for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and local governments to coordinate and achieve multiple outcomes.

We have a long road ahead of us. According to county records, only a fraction of the total estimated grows in the Emerald Triangle are currently engaged in a county licensing program process.

The other dynamic at play related to enforcement is the unfair business advantage for growers who employ environmentally destructive cultivation methods to provide a needed advantage over those growing in compliance with environmental laws.

In the end, it is our duty to limit harm done to the environment. Voters asked for that with the passage of Proposition 64. We will continue to pursue crimes resulting in degradation of fish and wildlife habitat. We promise to do this with transparency.

I also commit personally to working with state and county officials to get through this complicated endeavor together. It's going to be a bumpy ride, but we'll get there.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife provides the resources needed to conduct cultivation operations in compliance with California's environmental laws on our website at cannabis.

I encourage any county supervisor or legislator to contact my office directly to ensure we are all on the same page.

Charlton H. Bonham is the director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

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