California’s Calaveras County On Verge of Banning Cannabis Farms

Bill McManus, foreground, is the chairman of the local Committee to Ban Commercial Cultivation. (Photo: Peter Hecht for Leafly)

In California’s historic Gold Rush country, financially-suffering Calaveras County made a sizable wager on the Green Rush in the spring of 2016. It paid off handsomely. By welcoming and licensing medical cannabis growers, the county collected millions in dollars in taxes and fees from the locally regulated industry.

Calaveras County pocketed $3.7 million in cannabis permit fees in 2016, and $5m in cultivation taxes.

But now Calaveras, population 45,000, is having second thoughts. In a fiery Board of Supervisors meeting that stretched over two days Tuesday and Wednesday, angry citizens and conservative supervisors argued for a ban on commercial cultivation–while farmers and their supporters pushed back, wondering why the county’s warm welcome has suddenly turned cold.

Fiery cannabis opponents and outraged cannabis farmers packed the chambers and two spillover rooms, debating a proposed moved that could end one of the county’s few strong sources of revenue. Calaveras County pocketed $3.7 million in cannabis permit fees in 2016, and another $5 million in cultivation taxes in the 2016-2017 fiscal year.

After two days of public vitriol, eccentric outbursts and, ultimately, confusion and paralysis, on Wednesday the Board abruptly postponed a decision in the great Calaveras County cannabis clash.

Licensed cannabis farmers Joan and Bill Wilson sport buttons supporting supervisor Jack Garamendi, the target of a recall for his support of a taxed, regulated cannabis industry.

The showdown, perhaps California’s most volatile example of local government anxiety over whether to accept and regulate cannabis businesses or to drive them off, will continue when the board meets less than a week from now, on Oct. 24.

If anyone needs to understand the passions simmering in Calaveras, the appearance Tuesday of Holly Johnson – the singing cannabis farmer – was all it took.

Seven hours into the first-day debate, Johnson strode to the podium with her guitar. She unleashed a protest chorus at supervisors wanting to ban her farm:

“So let me grow my ganja where it’s sunny

And I’ll keep on paying taxes and making money

I’m not going to go tearing down my garden, honey

‘Ain’t going to be treated that way”

Some supervisors decided they wouldn’t be treated that way, either. Seconds into Johnson’s three-minute concert, two anti-cannabis supervisors, Dennis Mills and Clyde Clapp, stormed out of the board room.

Seconds into one citizen's pro-farmer song, two anti-cannabis supervisors, Dennis Mills and Clyde Clapp, stormed out of the board room.

Jack Garamendi, a supervisor who has been targeted by a recall drive over his support for maintaining Calaveras’ licensing and regulation of cannabis growers, lit into his colleagues when they returned.

“We don’t have a prohibition on singing,” Garamendi said. “We’re better than that. We need to let people express themselves and petition their government.”

Clapp rose to face one side of the audience – the people sporting “BAN” buttons – and shouted: “Sign the recall!”

A cannabis ban supporter brought her Old Glory hoodie to warm a chair.

Standing With Jack

The other side of the chamber wore buttons that said, “I stand with JACK.” They pleaded with supervisors to not cut off a lucrative revenue stream in cannabis taxes, particularly in a county that has lost nearly all other industries. The region’s gold mines, lumber mills, and cement factory all shuttered years ago.

Calaveras was also severely impacted by a scorching 2015 wildfire that destroyed 860 houses. Many of the charred lots soon bloomed with cannabis gardens as a means of economic recovery.

Back then, the county Board of Supervisors were more amenable to cannabis farmers. They approved rules permitting property owners up to a half-acre of commercial marijuana cultivation and up to 10,000 square feet of indoor growing in limited industrial zones.

More than 700 people applied for permits and paid $5,000 each in county fees, which funded new police and code enforcement officers. In 2016, 68 percent of county voters approved Measure C, which sweetened county coffers with a $2 per square foot tax on outdoor grown cannabis and $5 per square foot on indoor.

‘This will end in poverty and despair.’

Joan Wilson, a farmer who grows 3,000 square feet of cannabis on a county-licensed 20-acre parcel, came out to warn supervisors about the economic suicide of a “bait and switch” vote to bar commercial cannabis cultivation.

“The result of banning commerce that has already been allowed to operate would be devastating…ending in poverty and despair,” she said.

Don't be swayed by 'stoner karaoke,' Bill McManus said. Ban the farms now.

Bill McManus, head of the Calaveras Committee to Ban Commercial Cultivation, said neither tax revenue stream nor any boardroom “stoner karaoke” should deter supervisors from getting rid of cannabis farms.

McManus said the county’s cannabis experiment drew permitted guerrilla growers, criminal elements, environmental destruction and a shredding of the social fabric. “What the county has now is pure 100 percent chaos,” McManus said.

McManus’ social fabric claim carried more than a bit of hyperbole. But documents from county planning staff and the sheriff’s office showed that the county experienced a big influx of out-of-town cannabis growers after the 2015 fire and, again, when the county began accepting permits. So clearly a lot of newcomers have moved into the rural county, including many who arrived after the June 2016 application deadline had passed.

Sheriff: Legal Growers Reduce Illegal Grows

Calavaras County Sheriff Rick DiBasilio warned that illegal cannabis cultivation would continue to thrive no matter how the supervisors voted. Without cannabis taxes, he said, his department would lack the manpower to go after criminal growers.

“If this goes back to a black market completely, I think we’re going to see more grows in the hills,” DiBasilio said. “I’m not advocating one way or another. I’m just stating facts: The illegal growers are not going away.”

'I’m not advocating one way or another. I’m just stating facts: The illegal growers are not going away.'
Rick DiBasilio, Calveras County Sheriff

Since Jan. 1, the sheriff said his department – including a nine-member cannabis compliance team funded by money from fees on county permitted growers – has eradicated 52,000 cannabis plants from growers operating without county permits.

During that time, officers also seized $118,000 in cash, 225 pounds of processed cannabis, and 24 guns while making 50 arrests. In contrast, DiBasillo said he has had few problems with the county’s licensed cannabis farmers.

He said many of those licensed growers act as “eyes and ears” for sheriff’s investigators seeking to crack down on illegal cultivation and related environmental crimes, including siphoning water from sensitive streams and illegal dumping of toxins and pesticides.

The county, with three code enforcement officers funded by cannabis fees, filed abatement notices against 159 unpermitted gardens and issued 224 citations, seeking fines of $551,000.

Even under the best of financial circumstances, with the county using money from permitted cultivation to fund police and abatement programs, DiBasilio said it would take “three or four years” to drive illegal cultivation from the county’s secluded wooded landscape.

“Holy cow, we have had legal alcohol for years,” the sheriff said, “and there are still bootleggers.”