CHP Seizure of Legal Cannabis Outrages California Farmers

Published on January 9, 2018 · Last updated July 28, 2020
Old Kai Distribution cofounders Matthew Mandelker, right, and Lucas Seymour, who are licensed cannabis distributors, pose for a portrait beside a delivery van loaded with product at their warehouse near Ukiah, California on Tuesday, December 26, 2017. Despite state and county cannabis licenses, a vanload of product from Old Kai Distribution was siezed by CHP during a traffic stop of one of their delivery vehicles. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)

On Friday night Dec. 22, three days before Christmas and ten days before California ushered in legal retail sales of marijuana for adult use, California Highway Patrol officers pulled over the truck of a locally-licensed marijuana distributor near North State Street and Pomo Lane, just north of the Mendocino County seat of Ukiah.

The truck for Old Kai Distribution was carrying 1,875 pounds of plant material from three local farms. It was to be sorted and inventoried at the company’s Ukiah factory, given traceable bar codes, sent out for sample testing at cannabis laboratories and, eventually, shipped to licensed concentrate manufacturers.

'The Highway Patrol charged our truck drivers with transportation and possession of cannabis, which is exactly what our license is for.'

Old Kai co-founder Lucas Seymour said the CHP officers pulled over his drivers after apparently noticing some malfunctioning running lights on the frame of the truck. Ultimately, the CHP summoned officers from a regional major crimes task force, seized the cannabis, impounded the truck and cited the Old Kai driver and a passenger with misdemeanor counts of possession of marijuana for sale and unlawful transportation.

“They were charged with transportation and possession, which is exactly what our license is for,” Seymour said.

Old Kai’s attorney tried to intervene, and the company provided on-site documentation of having been approved for an adult use and medical marijuana distribution license by Mendocino County on Dec. 19, Lucas said. It also provided documents to show the company was also operating legally as a medical marijuana collective.

Seymour told Leafly that one of the CHP officers scoffed at the documentation, saying, “How do I know you didn’t just print this off the internet?”

Licensed & Documented, but ‘Still Illegal’

Officer Jake Slates, a spokesman for the CHP’s Ukiah office, later told the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat newspaper that commercial transportation of cannabis wasn’t permitted until retail sales begin for adult use on Jan. 1, 2018. “Let’s say they went through and got all the documentation and it’s 100 percent legal – it’s still illegal because it’s before Jan. 1, 2018,” Slates told the newspaper.

But Old Kai and its attorney, Joe Rogoway, say the Highway Patrol’s interpretation was wrong. They say the company’s local distribution permit was legally valid for transport within the county under Mendocino County ordinances and that Old Kai was also operating lawfully under medical marijuana regulations signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in October, 2015.

A spokesman for the state Bureau of Cannabis Control declined to comment on the matter.

Now Old Kai’s founders and local cannabis farmers, while lacking proof, say they believe law enforcement officials have destroyed the seized cannabis – which, if true, would be a devastating financial loss for the company and local farmers whose product was being shipped.

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Farmers Demand Action from Supervisors

Last Tuesday, concerned marijuana farmers crowded into the meeting of the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors, demanding information as well as action by supervisors to protest the CHP seizure.

Rogoway decried “a grave injustice,” saying the incident will frighten regional cannabis farmers and businesses that trusted the regulated marijuana economy would offer protection “to come out of the shadows” without putting livelihoods and liberties at risk.

“What is at issue here,” Rogoway said, “is why bother? Why should I participate in the system and put myself in jeopardy? If this is what happens to Old Kai, what will happen to me?”

Old Kai co-founder Matthew Mandelker told supervisors that the traffic stop stoked fears the Mendocino marijuana community still can’t feel safe from raids and seizure – even as the robust California cannabis economy seeks to roll back generations of prohibition.

“For too long, this industry has treated as if it is outside the social, civil and legal economic fabric of this community,” Mandelker protested. He added: “It is our understanding that the product has been destroyed, which is an outrage, just unfathomable in 2018 that were dealing with this.”

Where’s the Cannabis? CHP: No Comment

Highway Patrol spokesman Sgt. Coady Corrigan in Ukiah declined to respond to inquiries from Leafly on what happened to the seized cannabis. “We’ve been directed to refer all inquiries to the Mendocino County District Attorney’s office,” he said.

'What is the issue? We don't even have it officially under review.'

But Mike Geniella, a spokesman for District Attorney David Eyster said the DA still hadn’t received the case file from the CHP to determine whether it would proceed with prosecution.

“We don’t have anything to review,” he said. “What is this about? What is the issue? We don’t even have it officially under review.”

Geniella said Monday he still had no clue on the mystery over the whereabouts, or status, of the seized cannabis. He referred questions to the sheriff’s department, which has declined comment to media outlets, including Leafly.

Before the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, anguished cannabis farmer Joshua Artman of the Mendocino community of Covelo touched his right hand to his heart and vented.

“Most of that product (seized) was mine,” said Artman, a former federal employee with the U.S. Geological Survey. He had come to the county a decade ago to cultivate cannabis. His farm, Blue Nose Botanicals, was among the first to sign up for the county’s local 9.31 permitting program, placing its trust in the sheriff’s sergeant who came out to inspect and tag his plants – before a 2011 federal raid on another farm killed the program.

Artman and the county embraced local regulation anew after the California Legislature passed a framework for governing the medical marijuana economy and, this year, consolidated those rules with adult use regulations under Proposition 64. Now he was feeling emotionally, and possibly financially, crushed after the Old Kai seizure.

“I had signed up for everything,” Artman told supervisors, noting that he had just walked past the county tax collector’s office before entering the board room. “I don’t know how many times I’ve been in there paying them money” in local taxes and licensing fees. “I don’t know what to tell my family. We believed in you. We believed these regulations would be meaningful. We believed that signing up would amount to something and that there would be smart enforcement.”

‘Express Your Dismay’

A procession of speakers in the open comment period argued that the county should form a task force to address break downs in communications and understanding with law enforcement.

“This should not be met with silence from the board,” thundered Covelo resident Charles Sargenti. “I urge the board to express in as strong as manner possible your dismay and disappointment in regards to this incident. There should be no uncertainly on where you stand.”

Supervisors in the cannabis-friendly county were trying to catch up with the details of the incident. Beyond public comment, there was nothing on the agenda related the matter. But, without offering specifics, board chairman Dan Hamburg promised supervisors would explore actions to address the situation.

“Obviously, this Old Kai situation has brought up a lot of concern, a lot of anger,” Hamburg said. “The board realizes this is a serious situation that needs to be addressed. I want to assure people of that.”

Has the Cannabis Already Been Destroyed?

Seymour of Old Kai said he fears the seized cannabis was destroyed under state laws that allow destruction of confiscated cannabis in excess of 10 pounds without a court order. The state health and safety statute, amended in June, 2017, specifies that authorities can destroy any amount of medical cannabis above limits set by local ordinances. But Seymour argues that Mendocino County specifies no quantity limits for locally-permitted distribution.

Even though he conceded he has no direct evidence the seized product is gone, Seymour said his is convinced that “all signs point to the cannabis being destroyed.

“At this point, if it wasn’t destroyed we would have heard something through the grapevine,” he said. “And we have not heard much from anybody.”

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Peter Hecht
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.”
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