Raids of Emerald Triangle marijuana farms could threaten industry’s legal compliance

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Find more in-depth cannabis news, culture and politics at EmeraldReport.com, authoritative marijuana coverage from the PD.

California’s push to legalize and regulate the cannabis industry, a phased rollout with local and state government rules in development, has hit a snag in marijuana’s famed Emerald Triangle region, where a series of state law enforcement operations has targeted growers with county permits or others who have applied for them.

The California Growers Association, an industry group, said it is tracking at least 15 cases of cannabis farmers whose plants have been eradicated by state Fish and Wildlife wardens in Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties.

The issue has caught the attention of California lawmakers who are calling for wildlife officials to work with municipalities and avoid undermining local efforts to get cannabis farmers to participate in the newly legitimized industry and follow the relevant laws.

“We have an industry here that has for four decades operated underground, and that’s not totally the fault of the cultivators — the state never did come up with regulations until now,” Mendocino County Supervisor Dan Hamburg said. “We have to make it attractive for people to get into the system, and things like this make people say, ‘Hell no.’”

The conflict reflects the intersection of state agents carrying out their mandate — to protect natural resources — with the efforts of local officials who are trying to persuade marijuana growers, many of whom have been operating outside the law for years, to come forward and legitimize their businesses.

North Coast counties were among the first in the state to develop local permitting programs for marijuana cultivators in anticipation of new state licensing for producers expected in 2018. The effort to regulate the industry began with the 2015 passage of landmark medical marijuana regulations followed by a 2016 voter approval of Prop. 64 which legalized adult use.

Repairing environmental harms linked to marijuana, such as habitat degradation and depletion of water supplies, were major priorities in the state’s mission to regulate the lucrative crop, which supports an industry worth an estimated $7 billion.

Cannabis cultivators have showed up by the thousands at county offices in the Emerald Triangle to seek local permits, an essential step to gain entry into the state’s legal market. Their numbers total nearly 3,500 in Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties.

State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, said he’s heard from government officials and advocates in the region about cannabis farms under consideration for local permits being cut down, and he has requested a meeting with California Fish and Wildlife Director Chuck Bonham to “get on the same page.”

“California is North America’s largest cannabis market,” said McGuire, who represents the North Coast. He signaled that compliance among growers would not come overnight and authorities need to collaborate with that in mind. “Currently we’re flying the airplane as we’re building it and it’s going to be next to impossible to sign up the tens of thousands who want to be licensed immediately.”

In a recent case, Fish and Wildlife wardens visited a Mendocino County property unannounced Aug. 10 with a search warrant and weapons drawn. They detained the residents in handcuffs for several hours while officers eradicated more than 60 nearly mature plants, searched the home and seized their county application documents, according to the residents and their attorney.

A Fish and Wildlife spokesman said the property was raided because they suspected a well was diverting water from a nearby creek. Lt. Chris Stoots said the agency’s Watershed Enforcement Program — tasked to investigate, enforce and remediate environmental damage from cannabis cultivation on private land — launched the investigation.

Find more in-depth cannabis news, culture and politics at EmeraldReport.com, authoritative marijuana coverage from the PD.

Stoots said agents are obligated to respond swiftly to potential environmental violations, particularly when “misdemeanors or felonies are committed in the presence of an officer.”

“The legal status of it or the political opinion of it has nothing to do with the burden people have to (protect) the environment and the fact that they’re obligated to follow environmental laws,” Stoots said.

But a crackdown on those seeking local permission for their operation could dissuade many cultivators from coming forward, lawmakers and industry advocates say.

“I’m not here to second-guess law enforcement, but the bottom line is this: We need a unified policy in place since voters advanced Proposition 64,” McGuire said. “We need to focus on those landowners who are law abiding and trying to do the right thing by coming into compliance.”

Trinity County supervisors this week drafted a letter to the California Natural Resources Agency, which oversees the Department of Fish and Wildlife, expressing “frustration” over department investigations involving cannabis cultivators enrolled in the county permit program. The letter notes “a number of our current licensees and applicants are being specifically targeted.”

“It is frustrating, disheartening and, in some cases, shocking that after 20-plus years when Trinity County finally has some tools to work to regulate local cultivators as the State prepares for their licensing in 2018, that current licensees and applicants are subject to what appears to be subjective enforcement action,” board chairman John Fenley wrote.

Mendocino County’s Interim Agriculture Commissioner Diane Curry said the property owners targeted during the Aug. 10 raid were working with county staff to address the potential water source issue and several others, such as greenhouse design. The owners seemed to “want to do whatever needs to be done to be in compliance,” she said in an interview.

“We had done our site inspection and things looked good,” Curry said, noting the county had also issued a May 4 document stating such.

Curry notified Fish and Wildlife several weeks ago about the water source question as standard practice and was surprised the agency had launched an enforcement action without contacting her department first.

“I’m really concerned,” Curry said. “We want to get people doing the right thing, and if we don’t have support from all these agencies we’re just helping to keep people in the black market and creating all the things people don’t want like health and safety issues and environmental crimes.”

Mendocino County began accepting applications for cannabis cultivation in May, and the nearly 700 applications have been filed, overwhelming county staff. So far they have issued just three permits.

Mendocino County cannabis farmer Casey O’Neill, vice chairman of the California Growers Association, said Fish and Wildlife actions are creating the perception among cannabis farmers that state wardens do not recognize the county government’s cannabis programs.

“The vast majority of cultivators are watching, and it’s had a tremendous chilling effect on the process,” O’Neill said. “People are saying, ‘I knew I shouldn’t have applied.’”

California Growers Association Executive Director Hezekiah Allen said the group is talking with a number of cannabis cultivators “in the compliance pipeline” who have been involved in similar Fish and Wildlife raids, including five in Mendocino County, seven in Trinity County and three in Humboldt County.

“I’m not disputing that Fish and Wildlife was right to mitigate water use issues, but do it in a civil way,” Allen said. “That’s why the state is undergoing this shift from criminal to civil enforcement.”

The Mendocino County property owner whose cannabis garden was cut down by Fish and Wildlife agents in the Aug. 10 enforcement action, despite a pending county cultivation permit, said the raid deprived her of a crop worth $350,000 about two weeks before harvest. She said she had lined up sales with several dispensaries.

The woman spoke on condition of anonymity because she fears being burglarized or robbed. She also believes speaking publicly about her case will jeopardize their future eligibility for a local permit, which she still intends to seek.

She said she came from family with extensive roots in Mendocino County, where she has been growing marijuana for personal use since the 1980s. She and her partner are waiting for a report from a hydrologist to determine if the well was pulling from the creek, and if so, plan to find an alternative water source.

Her attorney, Orchid Vaghti of Santa Rosa, said her clients were working with the county to address any environmental concerns and be responsible. In return, she said, they were “raided at gunpoint.”

“The core issue surrounds the way people are dealt with because it’s marijuana — something the state and county have made sure will be acceptable, but we still have agencies treating them as outlaws,” Vaghti said.

Stoots said the marijuana cultivation appeared illegal because the owners didn’t have a local permit or state license. Officers can’t take into consideration a pending application for a permit, he said. He declined to discuss additional details about the case, saying it is still under investigation.

The same type of water diversion investigation involving a different type of agricultural operation, such as grapes, might have been addressed with notices of violation and impact studies, but the presence of suspected illegal marijuana cultivation required a public safety-focused response, Stoots said.

“It sounds like we’re at odds with them (county ordinances) and I will stop short of fueling that by simply saying there should be great effort and diligence to these (county-level) decisions to ensure it’s not in conflict with existing law,” Stoots said. “If there’s an effort going on to make things legal, we obviously need to and want to work with local municipalities.”

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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