Mendocino marijuana raids reflect California’s stepped-up enforcement on illegal operators

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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.

Allman said they targeted areas where his office received a high number of complaints last year, in Covelo and communities of Dos Rios, Woodman Creek, Iron Peak Road and Simmerly Road.

Investigators identified 2,095 cultivation sites in the north county portion of the Eel River, which is habitat for protected salmon and frog species, and they whittled their focus down to 28 sites where through surveillance they observed environmental crimes, according to Allman. The Sheriff’s Office reported evidence of 603 separate environmental violations.

The smallest farm had about 65 plants and the largest had upwards of 6,000.

Investigators uncovered egregious water diversions, widespread use of harmful chemicals like rodenticides and pesticides, damaging grading for roads and unpermitted construction that has led to erosion and further harm to streams and the animals that depend on fresh water.

They reported finding heaps of trash on the ground and dirty diapers in the water.

“The people who are doing this need to follow all the rules just like everyone else,” said Sheriff’s Lt. Andrew Porter, the operation commander. “You can’t dam streams without permits, divert water from the creek, dump pesticides or rodenticides into a stream.”

Agents seized seven firearms. Allman said he directed his teams to avoid arresting people, a change in tactic from prior operations. Instead, they will be sending their investigative reports to Mendocino County District Attorney’s Office for possible prosecution.

Six scientists with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife joined the caravan of law enforcement heading into the hills, and they took water and soil samples as part of the investigations. They found piping hidden in the dirt and leaves running water from the water source “to the sunny spot where they were cultivating, often crossing property lines and trespassing over neighboring properties,” said senior environmental scientist Tim Dodson.

On one property, investigators found people had used a bulldozer to dam a stream and build a pond — illegal construction and water diversion that can have significant consequences downstream for wildlife and other people depending on that water source.

Rumors of ransacked homes and unprofessional behavior by law enforcement began to surface in the aftermath of the operation. None of these reports have been substantiated by the Sheriff’s Office or marijuana industry leaders, according to several people interviewed.

Critics are also questioning the renewed use for surveillance of low-flying helicopters — a triggering sound in these rural enclaves where marijuana cultivation has roots going back multiple generations in some families and stories about the heavy hand of law enforcement before marijuana legalization run deep.

Fort Bragg attorney Hannah Nelson, whose practice has focused on cannabis cases for nearly 30 years, said she’s in contact with multiple people who came under investigation during the operation.

She said the cases she knows of involved people who had started the permitting process but had become overwhelmed and abandoned the effort to legalize. Another case involved longtime growers who had more plants than allowed under personal-use limits.

Nelson said she doesn’t believe these are the types of people who should be involved in a crackdown and it fits a longtime pattern of law enforcement sweeping up small-scale growers alongside large-scale renegade cultivators.

“I understand from the sheriff’s perspective there has to be a bright line — people are following the regulations or they’re not following regulations,” Nelson said. “That doesn’t mean the manner in which the enforcement operation is conducted in all instances warrants an enormous paramilitary team.”

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