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California Auditor Accuses Sheriff of Misusing Cannabis Fees to Fund Raids

August 10, 2017
Clint Snyder, assistant executive officer of the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board, speaks about environmental damage from illegal marijuana farms in a Northern California County at the Calaveras County Sheriff’s office. Snyder is standing next to photos taken by the Calaveras Sheriff’s office during a multi-day raid of illegal farms, which a county auditor now claims was wrongly funded by revenue from legally grown cannabis. (AP Photo/Kathleen Ronayne)
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A California county auditor is accusing a sheriff of improperly spending some of the $1 million his department received in fees from legal cannabis growers to go after illegal operators.
It’s the latest skirmish over pot in a rural county confronting a massive influx of marijuana growers in the run up to Jan. 1 when recreational cannabis sales becomes legal in California.

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Calaveras County sheriff Rick DiBasilio denies the auditor’s charge that he can only use the money for background checks and other permit-related activity. He says busting illegal pot operations is necessary to regulate marijuana in the county, and is working with county officials on resolving the issue. The sheriff declined further comment.

“So far there's been very minimal corrective action from the sheriff.”

Rebecca Callen, Calaveras County Auditor

California counties and cities have been wrangling with whether to allow recreational cannabis operations within their borders since voters passed Proposition 64 in November. Some have already enacted outright bans while others embrace marijuana as a financial boost.

In Calaveras, residents are deeply divided over the county’s year-old decision to permit medical marijuana farmers who pay $5,000 application fees and pass background checks. Marijuana foes said the county’s new ordinance has attracted a large number of undesirable drug dealers, leading to higher crime and community upheaval.

Four of the five supervisors who enacted the ordinance last year have been replaced by candidates who vowed to repeal the ordinance and ban all marijuana operations. But their plan to repeal has been slowed by legal threats from the farmers who have already paid a combined $3.7 million in fees to the county.

It’s those fees that auditor Rebecca Callen said the sheriff improperly tapped to help finance cannabis farm raids and arrests.

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Callen said in an interview with Capital Public Radio KXJZ she has been warning the sheriff of her concerns, but it appears he has spent about $120,000 on law enforcement activities not related to the marijuana ordinance. She believes money collected from the permits should only be spent for things such as background checks and other permit-related activity.

“So far there’s been very minimal corrective action from the sheriff,” Callen told the station. Callen did not return several phone calls from The Associated Press to her office and home voicemail this week.

In a prepared statement Thursday, the sheriff said he has “resolved” the issue with county lawyers and the board of supervisors.

“We are aware of the concerns raised by the use of certain funds for eradication activities, and have been in useful negotiations to resolve differences in the interpretation of applicable law,” DiBasilio said.

County administrator Tim Lutz said Thursday that he believes the sheriff has spent the marijuana fees appropriately, but said officials were working on updating and clarifying its cannabis regulations.

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The rural county is nestled in the Sierra Nevada foothills about 125 miles (200 kilometers) east of San Francisco. It has always attracted marijuana growers because of its temperate climate, inexpensive land and proximity to urban areas.

But the region’s popularity as a marijuana destination soared after a 2015 wildfire that killed two people and destroyed 900 buildings, turning forests into prime farmland and depressing real estate prices even more.

Outside growers, many paying cash to landowners motivated by the fire to sell, flooded in, overwhelming local law enforcement officials and county resources.

“It was a perfect storm,” Lutz said.

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  • Alix Naveh

    Cannabis should be legal, but that has nothing to do with raiding illegal grows. If we are a legitimate industry then we must follows laws and regulations. This is no different from regulations on electronics,food, or any other consumer good. Taxes need to be paid, permits need to be filed/ approved, grows need to be regulated for safety. Every illegal grower in California is hurting, not helping, our cause. They are the people our opponents point to when decrying the evils of cannabis and its related markets. Also, there is nothing wrong or immoral about using excess funds from permits to heighten law enforcement abilities. Though it would be better spent on education or other social services in all but the most crime-ridden areas, in the short term that extra money can assuage worries over rising crime post-legalization.

    • dtschuck

      That’s all true. On the other hand, Sheriffs should follow the law as well. If laws, rules, regulations and codes restrict how money collected from fees can be spent, they should abide by them, not just treat the permit money as their personal slush fund. If there is a reasonable and appropriate permit system in the County, which there is apparently not, the legitimate permit holders should welcome regulation enforcement as they’ve paid money for the permit and other costs of doing business legitimately, while the illegal growers have not, thus they have a cost advantage.

      If there is going to be enforcement on a broad scale, it should be announced well in advance, for instance, notice could be published that “illegal marijuana growing in Calaveras County is rampant and at the direction of the County Commissioners, a concerted enforcement effort will begin on July 1, 2018. Spot enforcement may occur before then in particularly egregious violations but please note that a complete canvassing of the County, using local as well as outside law enforcement, will be conducted on or after July 1, 2018. No exceptions to legal permits will be granted”

      This is how you act if you want to stop illegal growing without having to acting Elliot Ness or the Gestapo, causing unnecessary hardship and pain.