California’s push to legalize and regulate the cannabis industry, a phased rollout with local and state government rules in development, has hit a snag in marijuana’s famed Emerald Triangle region, where a series of state law enforcement operations has targeted growers with county permits or others who have applied for them.
The California Growers Association, an industry group, said it is tracking at least 15 cases of cannabis farmers whose plants have been eradicated by state Fish and Wildlife wardens in Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties.
The issue has caught the attention of California lawmakers who are calling for wildlife officials to work with municipalities and avoid undermining local efforts to get cannabis farmers to participate in the newly legitimized industry and follow the relevant laws.
“We have an industry here that has for four decades operated underground, and that’s not totally the fault of the cultivators — the state never did come up with regulations until now,” Mendocino County Supervisor Dan Hamburg said. “We have to make it attractive for people to get into the system, and things like this make people say, ‘Hell no.’”
The conflict reflects the intersection of state agents carrying out their mandate — to protect natural resources — with the efforts of local officials who are trying to persuade marijuana growers, many of whom have been operating outside the law for years, to come forward and legitimize their businesses.
North Coast counties were among the first in the state to develop local permitting programs for marijuana cultivators in anticipation of new state licensing for producers expected in 2018. The effort to regulate the industry began with the 2015 passage of landmark medical marijuana regulations followed by a 2016 voter approval of Prop. 64 which legalized adult use.
Repairing environmental harms linked to marijuana, such as habitat degradation and depletion of water supplies, were major priorities in the state’s mission to regulate the lucrative crop, which supports an industry worth an estimated $7 billion.
Cannabis cultivators have showed up by the thousands at county offices in the Emerald Triangle to seek local permits, an essential step to gain entry into the state’s legal market. Their numbers total nearly 3,500 in Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties.
State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, said he’s heard from government officials and advocates in the region about cannabis farms under consideration for local permits being cut down, and he has requested a meeting with California Fish and Wildlife Director Chuck Bonham to “get on the same page.”
“California is North America’s largest cannabis market,” said McGuire, who represents the North Coast. He signaled that compliance among growers would not come overnight and authorities need to collaborate with that in mind. “Currently we’re flying the airplane as we’re building it and it’s going to be next to impossible to sign up the tens of thousands who want to be licensed immediately.”
In a recent case, Fish and Wildlife wardens visited a Mendocino County property unannounced Aug. 10 with a search warrant and weapons drawn. They detained the residents in handcuffs for several hours while officers eradicated more than 60 nearly mature plants, searched the home and seized their county application documents, according to the residents and their attorney.
A Fish and Wildlife spokesman said the property was raided because they suspected a well was diverting water from a nearby creek. Lt. Chris Stoots said the agency’s Watershed Enforcement Program — tasked to investigate, enforce and remediate environmental damage from cannabis cultivation on private land — launched the investigation.