Mad River Union
HUMBOLDT – The conduct of the county’s Sheriff’s Office in carrying out cannabis law enforcement became a focus of discussion as county supervisors were updated on permitting and abatement.
Cannabis issues dominated the September 10 Board of Supervisors meeting. Early in the meeting, during an open public comment session, what was dubbed a “flash mob” of cannabis farmers included accusations of carrying out raids on law-abiding farmers and officers showing up “with guns a’blazin.’”
Those accounts were backed up on the dais. “What I hear from people all over the community is that there needs to be fact-checking before they show up at the gate,” said Supervisor Steven Madrone.
Differentiating between code enforcement and criminal law enforcement, Madrone added, “I’ve never heard of code enforcement going into people’s houses and trashing their houses.”
Madrone is hearing that sheriff’s deputies “not only show up with the chippers – and maybe they’ve checked their facts or not – but if they do decide it’s an illegal grow, unpermitted, there is trashing of houses happening and harassment of individuals and people being cordoned off that are not even on the parcel but walking nearby.”
The alleged harassment of uninvolved people includes “money taken from them,” he continued. He also questioned the Sheriff’s Office’s enforcement priorities, saying, “I’m not so sure that what we’re doing is going after egregious grows.”
The significance of illegal status was also called into question, due to the financial challenges of becoming compliant. “I frankly do not believe that our ordinances have provided an economic pathway for the small farmer,” said Madrone.
The farmers in the audience applauded when Madrone finished his statements.
County Sheriff Billy Honsal wasn’t in the room when Madrone spoke but he appeared soon after. And he told supervisors that the targets of raids and searches are those who are not in the process of gaining state licenses.
And Honsal said there are thousands of growers who “haven’t bothered going to the county, haven’t bothered going to the state.”
Regarding enforcement, “We take this very, very professionally and we do it in a succinct manner,” Honsal said, adding that “it is an order from the court to go do a search warrant – a judge orders us to go to the property, to seize property and to seize evidence to support that warrant.”
When searching,” We take things slow,” Honsal told supervisors. “This isn’t SWAT teams using concussion grenades as we go through a house, this is a slow and deliberate search on a property.”
Officer safety is a primary concern, he said. “Believe it or not, people don’t want us there and people aren’t greeting us with open arms when they’re on the illegal side and there have been shoot-outs before, in other jurisdictions and our own, on illegal grows.”
Because of that, “Our guns are out at times,” he continued.
“And we do have to search properties, which means we do have to turn things over, we do have to look for evidence that the judge orders us to go see,” Honsal said. “So sometimes, it’s not pretty when we go serve a search warrant.
“But one thing that we do do, is treat people with dignity and respect every single time.”
There are many cannabis growers who haven’t entered the permitting system. Planning staff told supervisors that countywide caps of 3,500 permits and 1,205 acres aren’t even close to being reached.
As of mid-August, 471 permits encompassing 123 acres had been approved and 1,457 permit applications are in the process of being reviewed. Many will drop out or fail to gain approval.
The county has broken down location-specific caps in each of the county’s 12 watersheds. No new grows are allowed in them but growers who have been operating prior to 2016 have until the end of this year to be permitted for 50 percent of their cultivation area.
Supervisor Estelle Fennell acknowledged the “approach avoidance” phenomenon and described the window of opportunity to be permitted as “a heads-up to anybody who has thinking along those lines.”
On the challenges of permitting, Fennell said that “people have gotten bad advice from some of their advisors” and “I personally have had people say to me, ‘So-and-so has represented me and dropped the ball.’”
Fennell’s advice: “Unless you’ve got something really complicated, please just go in to the Planning Department,” she said.
During a public comment period, Patricia Lai of the Arcata-based Mother Earth Engineering permitting consulting company, reiterated comments she’d made during the earlier showing of the flash mob.
She said that despite cannabis excise tax revenue, the Planning Department’s service is “not excellent and not even mediocre, it is horrible and it is truly disheartening – but we can fix this.”
Terra Carver of the Humboldt Growers Alliance, which she said represents 250 “legal cannabis businesses,” thanked the county for its efforts, calling Humboldt “a pioneer and a model for the rest of the state.” She added that “by working together, sharing resources and gaining perspective, many of the anxieties of this process can be reduced.”