Letters + Opinion » The Week in Weed

North Coast Left Out of Governor's Pitch to Crack Down on Illegal Cannabis



It's no secret Humboldt County has many, many of cannabis farms. It's also no secret that the vast majority of them — between 80 and 90 percent by most estimates — have taken no steps to come into compliance with state or local laws.

Not only does this mean that there are upwards of 10,000 farms spread across Humboldt County that may be dewatering streams and illegally cutting roads, imperiling endangered salmonids and killing protected critters with indiscriminate rodenticide use, it also means legal markets are being undercut by shady growers who, by crude estimates, combine to produce almost as much cannabis (2.1 million pounds) as the state consumes (2.5 million pounds).

And local officials — from the sheriff to county code enforcement — have bemoaned a lack of resources needed to aggressively weed out rogue farms. So it would seem that Gov. Jerry Brown's May 11 proposal to pour $14 million into the attorney general's budget to "target illegal cannabis activity" and reduce "environmental and other crimes associated with the illegal cannabis market" would be great news, right? Not so fast.

Brown's proposal calls for the formation of five investigative teams to carry out complex investigations. The catch is none of those teams will be located near the Emerald Triangle, which has historically produced more cannabis than any other region in the country. Instead, Brown is pitching putting teams in Los Angeles, Sacramento, Fresno and San Diego, with another team focused on interdiction also in the state capital.

Humboldt County Sheriff William Honsal said Brown's proposal is dissapointing on multiple levels.

"This is what's frustrating, the fact is that they're pouring more money into areas where the economy has been rich for years," he said. "There's already resources in those areas to put into these types of efforts. Send money where the actual problem is, where you have 13,000 illegal grows and you struggle to find five deputies to go after them."

Honsal also questioned the wisdom of forming new investigative teams rather than spending the proposed $14 million on supplementing existing drug task forces and cannabis enforcement units with additional resources, like crime analysts and personnel with the expertise to build complex financial and environmental cases.

Honsal said there is a "tremendous amount of pressure" on his cannabis unit to "build enforceable cases but also to go out and cut down plants." Both of these endeavors are incredibly time consuming, Honsal said. In addition to the labor-intensive efforts of simply eradicating gardens with thousands of cannabis plants, working up the investigative ladder to go after the people truly responsible for illicit grows and hold them legally accountable is a slog that requires a lot of investigation and, often, forensic accounting.

"These cases are very, very complex and we've been asking for additional resources for years from the federal government and the state to assist us with these and we haven't seen it," he said.

North Coast Assemblymember Jim Wood said in a statement that he's encouraged by Brown's commitment to throw resources at combating the illicit cannabis industry, which would in turn help those businesses looking to comply with state and local regulations. But he noted the absence in the proposal of any teams in the north end of the state.

"I recognize that this is a statewide problem, but the Emerald Triangle has been the epicenter of the cannabis industry and I would have preferred that a team be focused in our area to help support the many legitimate cannabis businesses here," he said.

Meanwhile, the tax revenue from legal recreational cannabis sales — which totaled $33 million through the first quarter — that has been earmarked for public safety programs and environmental cleanups of old cannabis sites will not be available until 2019.

For his part, Honsal said it can be hard to square the budget situation in Sacramento — where Brown reported a projected surplus of nearly $9 billion — to the facts on the ground in Humboldt, Mendocino, Del Norte, Trinity and Siskiyou counties, where local agencies are stretched to deal with entrenched and growing problems, from cannabis to jail overcrowding.

"We're all struggling and the state is just flush with money," he said.

Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.

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