Speakers at the Sept. 10 Humboldt County Board of Supervisors meeting expressed concerns about recent sheriff's office cannabis raids and the extreme costs and long timelines needed to get grows permitted.
Humboldt County's economy has taken a big hit with the onset of cannabis regulation, as evidenced by a 10-percent reduction in sales tax receipts in 2018. That drop did not occur in any other California county. The drop in sales tax means less money for roads and public safety, as well as significant impacts for local businesses.
Many feel that cannabis regulations never offered an affordable pathway for the small farmer (those growing less than 2,000 square feet) to become legal. The costs were so great to become compliant that many who went through legalization increased the size of their operations to 10,000 square feet to break even. Many started the process of getting permits but have stopped working toward compliance due to the large unknown costs and changing requirements. Others were just gaming the system to get one more year. The number of original applications was 2,479. Of those, only 471 have been approved. Of the estimated 8,000 to 10,000 grows before legalization, less than 5 percent are in compliance.
I agree with enforcement but disagree with comments that folks have been given every opportunity to become legal. There is a big difference between small grows of 2,000 square feet and the bigger, egregious grows causing significant environmental damage. The big illegal grows also tend to have the guns and other violent responses to law enforcement.
There have been two pathways the county has been using to bring illegal grows into conformance.
There is the civil approach through code enforcement, in which the county reviews aerial photography, permit status and any environmental violations, like water diversions, unpermitted grading, unpermitted structures and presence of pollutants. In this case, the county posts a notice of abatement with fines of up to $10,000 a day per violation starting 10 days after the posting.
This process is not perfect but has been very effective in curtailing unpermitted operations and there are no raids or danger posed for anyone in this approach. There have been some problems with the abatement process but no one is criminalized.
The second approach is a criminal matter and involves search warrants, armed raids and the seizure of property in the search of buildings. There are stories of searches going beyond the warrant properties to include neighboring properties, even if they are small grows.
My comments at the meeting were meant to reflect concern with this approach and an interest in providing an economically viable pathway for small farmers rather than criminalizing them and raiding their properties at gunpoint.
I support the sheriffs' office and have been working to provide it with better pay to increase recruitment and retention efforts. The recent escalation of helicopter flyovers and the use of the National Guard have been cause for concern.
What I support is developing an economic pathway for small farmers to be compliant and have direct sales; we need carrots as well as sticks; the use of code enforcement on large grows outside of the regulatory framework that are egregious and the use of warrants and raids on large, egregious grows with workers who are also likely armed and dangerous. As stated by the sheriff, length of land tenure is a good clue to stewardship investment.
Our board agreed to work to set up an ad hoc committee to look at "what is working and what is not" in cannabis regulation and to make changes to support small farmers. This will improve our economy, create jobs, help to keep our sheriff's deputies safe and protect our environment.
Steve Madrone is a supervisor representing Humboldt County's Fifth District. He prefers he/him pronouns and lives in Trinidad.