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California’s Calaveras County On Verge of Banning Cannabis Farms

October 19, 2017
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.”

Peter Hecht's Bio Image

Peter Hecht

Peter Hecht, former political writer and Los Angeles bureau chief for the Sacramento Bee, has been reporting on cannabis since 2009. His coverage has been honored for explanatory reporting in the "Best of the West" journalism awards and earned an Excellence in Journalism prize from the Northern California Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Hecht is the author of the book “Weed Land: Inside America’s Marijuana Epicenter and How Pot Went Legit.”

View Peter Hecht's articles

  • Bill Wilson

    After reading the Mill’s paper, it points to the need for good regulation as it only site’s illegal growing as the problem. With good regulation we have farmers who as my wife does hold a pesticide license/ permit from the State Agriculture Department as the State of California requires. Even though she uses none and has never used any pesticide on her crop. She uses bugs when needed, we hand pick the moths worms and feed them to our chickens. Follows the WQBC water standards. Is inspected by the County and any other State required agency. Pays taxes to the county and the state when due next year. Pays her county license and permit fees along with her required state license if allowed next year. Do illegal grows that a ban would leave do any of these?
    She has one of the only 180 something permits issued from the county who have denied 196 for such thing as not having signs posted 22 or fencing 17. 45 for not getting papers the county required to be in by Sept 7 along with another 45 listed under other for not getting a BOE permit, Business license or paying / registering with the State water quality control board. 33 for lack of a complete application. Only 14 were denied for not passing a background check. 7 for not completing the background check. 49 for False or Misleading information, mostly not being able to prove they were growing on those properties by the May 10 deadline 46. In total 196 denials for 408 reasons these are just the highlights. 35 for grading after the May 10th Deadline with out a permit (note no permit required for grading if Agriculture, but here Cannabis isn’t AG). There are still the rest of those 785 still in process a year and a half later.
    This county could have worked with the growers for the last ten months to strengthen regulation but they changed course to Ban baby Ban never seriously working to comply with the new state laws passed by the voters, prop 64 and our own measure C, to bring the industry into full compliance. No, but they all voted to spend the money when it balanced the budget from last year. They also have spend every dime left over in this years budget!

  • Fun Please

    Really, the only reasons why illegal grows happen are demand, price, and the fact cannabis is still very illegal.
    Solutions: Legal cannabis at low price.
    Otherwise illegal grow ops will continue to be a problem for everyone, including the legal market.
    Simple econ

    • Mo Jo

      Having come from a rec-legal State I can inform you that the decision to stay in the Black or Grey market also comes down to water rights, smell ordinances, sound ordinances, set-backs and dozens of other legal issues. Often, it is just easier to continue flying under the radar. The other contributing factor is the fact that Calavaras County has been threatening to reverse course for a year now. Why come out into the daylight when all it will accomplish is letting them know where you are once they change their minds? If Calavaras had never waffled on the matter, many more of the illegals would be daylighted by now.

      • Fun Please

        Stand corrected – should have mentioned all legal laws – in a way that’s part of the cannabis not being legal, if you are violating water rights laws to grow.

    • William

      Well said!

  • justadbeer

    I’m curious if this “bait and switch” routine that the county seems to be playing will stem any lawsuits. Considering the cost of permits, the cost of equipment to set up a “legal” grow operation, the high taxes and other fees paid, not to mention the cost some have incured of relocating their home and life to that county. I do believe I would be looking into a lawyer that could help me recover everything I have invested and then some extra for the pain and suffering, and then some more to cover the costs of relocating my operation. Maybe if the county had to pay back all of the revenue that they so gladly took when they had dollar signs for eyeballs, they would reconsider this ban being pushed by a few zealots

    • Snegurochka

      Yes indeed, the growers took action based on official actions and have a reliance interest at stake here.

    • Stephen Reb

      Exactly. Bait and switch. These people invested heavily in the county based entirely on the county’s promise of business opportunities that they later decided to revoke, once they had the suckers’ money in their conservative pockets. It’s too bad that everyone will have to suffer for their lies, but if this ban goes through, affected investors should sue Calaveras County into the stone age.

  • Mo Jo

    I’m sure they will be willing to return those permit fees…

  • Snegurochka

    There’s an element in some of these rural California counties that doesn’t WANT new businesses and new income–it’s the big frog in a small pond mentality. The county boss hoggs have served this handful of big landowners all along, and the last thing they want is people getting income that the boss hoggs can’t grab a piece of through their usual underhanded tactics.

    But the taxpayers of the county pay the price for these reactionaries.

  • William

    In the book “Chasing the Scream” by Johann Hari; he studied the papers of Harry Anslinger, and traveled the world studying the effects of the drug war. He subtitles “The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs”: While that is clearly all sane persons’ desire, once read, such cannot be denied…Anslinger was head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics when prohibition ended, and went looking for justification of his budget. He was a racist, sadist and was the director of the killing of Billie Holiday. Anslinger traveled the world threatening governments to join his jihad. When Mexico was reticent to stop treatment of drug addicts, Anslinger cut off their legal opioid supply, subjecting an entire country to misery. Anslinger was good friends with Joe McCarthy (yes, THAT Joe McCarthy); McCarthy was a heroin addict, and Anslinger arranged McCarthy’s supply of heroin, out of a D.C. pharmacy.
    “CHASING THE SCREAM” Johann Hari

  • William

    Marijuana was a focal point of Anslinger’s jihad, as it was known to be used by Mexicans. And heroin was known to be used by Blacks…you can’t separate these things, including the facts about Anslinger, the founder, holy emperor of the drug jihad. Joe Arapaio was mentored by Harry Anslinger, and had his signature on the wall of his office…Anslinger was a racist sadist, and arranged to supply his good friend Joe McCarthy, who was a heroin addict, with his drug of choice and dependence. Anslinger directed the murder of Billie Holiday.

    And dear person/s at Leafly; our battle for marijuana (I was the first to sell pot in H.S. in the 60’s) is a battle for the America we love, which does not include censorship, you deciding what is to be said, when it is easily fact checked, not insulting, and strong. Please don’t claim your private company rights; considering the completely public nature of the internet, such is an argument that fails any test of American Constitutional law.
    Those who would suppress marijuana, do so in the same spirit as censorship.
    Thank you,

    P.S. McCarthy was a poly abuser; alcohol AND heroin…

    • William

      When Mexico refused to demonize marijuana and drug treatment to Anslinger’s satisfaction, he cut their legal supply of opioid pain medication off, leaving an entire country without remedy legally…
      “Chasing the Scream” Johann Hari; after you read it, you will know of whence you speak when fighting those who would suppress our great herbs…

  • Glen Folkard – GWS Survivor.

    While subtly promoted feudalism is our master, the peaceful flower will be a crime. An endless circle of misinformation and rubbish.

    • William

      The feudalism is subtle only if you do not read…

      • William

        Whoever you are Leafly censor, be careful, you might be late…

        “See you in the next world, don’t be late” Jimi Hendrix

  • klw

    My god, the towns need to get rid of morons and stupid people in their local Gov. It’s time to get over it, we call it progress. It will continue no matter what anyone votes for so you should be taking advantage of it like the other states. We got $60 million last yr in tax revenue, that is nothing to sneeze at. You would think they would really like the new income and keeping the towns people employed and or happy. It’s to bad we have so many seriously stupid ignorant morons among us. One of the states just hit the billion dollar mark in sales in just nine months, CO or WA can’t remember. These idiots are not only promoting the “black market” but forcing them into it. No wonder all of us are sick and tired of the morons that run our screwy Gov. Pretty sad, now we got stuck with a con man and overall joke of a sorta Pres that has no idea and no business being in the WH.

  • Alan479 Martin

    There will always be illegal growers because they are fed up with the legal syndicate micromanaging their lives. If I want to move money from might right pocket to my left pocket I don’t want to see a greasy legal palm stealing part of it.The legal government syndicate seems to believe that they have a divine right to control every part of our lives and anything involving money most be approved by them. No matter how little and how personal. Legal growers start running for office or else.