A Carrot and Stick for Pot Farmers 

The state water board has launched an unprecedented program that seeks to work cooperatively with cannabis growers, but other government agencies just want to raid farms and seize cash.

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Lieutenant Game Warden DeWayne Little fielded questions on behalf of Fish and Wildlife. He'd been on the inspection, and has been working in the area to protect streams and fish for decades. He pointed out that inspectors did not cut down any pot plants, even though there were reports of grows with several thousand plants. This, in itself, was somewhat remarkable, given that game wardens are sworn law enforcement officers and that Humboldt County sheriff's officials accompanied the inspection group.

Little called the Sproul inspections the collaborative project's "maiden voyage," and at one point, praised the participants at the meeting. "I understand that a lot of you feel victimized by this process. ... Each one of us is a private citizen outside of our professional lives — I get it." But he added that Sproul was targeted for environmental reasons, and because it was one of the watersheds likely to get grower buy-in. He said that people who show up to public forums are not the problem; it's the people who don't. "With that in mind," he said, "look at yourself as a solution, not the victims of the situation."

Yet despite Little's overtures to the growers assembled in Garberville, Fish and Wildlife is not prepared to give up on the raids with law enforcement and fully adopt the water board's new program. Kason Grady, an engineer with the regional water board, explained: "They (Fish and Wildlife] have their own jurisdiction, and they have to proceed doing their eradication efforts according to their own priority. But our agency is taking a different tack, and we're taking a tack that's consistent with how we regulate other industries in our region — that is, a permit approach, we don't do eradication, we don't use those tools with any of the other industries that we deal with."

Island Mountain is a remote territory where the three counties of the Emerald Triangle meet. It's a place where law enforcement is rarely seen, and the growers have gone big. As the locals say, "they're blowing it up" — with substantial environmental consequences.

During the June 22 raid, sheriff's deputies cut down about 85,000 plants, and Fish and Wildlife officials charged 97 environmental crimes. But only a couple of arrests were made.

Authorities found unpermitted diversions from creeks, awful grading practices that quickly erode the land into streams, poorly constructed roads and creek crossings that destroy fish habitat, dangerous pesticide use, and tons of trash.

Scott Bauer, an environmental scientist for Fish and Wildlife, had camped out for the week, going to grows from dawn to dusk. In the last few years, he's been on a one-man PR campaign in the fight against environmentally damaging dope. Though he tends toward technical descriptions of problems, you can hear the frustration in his voice, and that he cares deeply about the environment. "It's a pretty sad state of affairs," he said. "You're out there and you're trying to protect fish and protect wildlife and you see these things — and I hate to say it but I feel like you go through those kind of stages where you're distraught and you're upset about it to the point where you kind of get desensitized to it. ... It's really hard to do it when you do care — because, how much can this keep occurring? And what are we going to do about it collectively?"

For law enforcement, there are strong incentives to ignore the water board's call for cooperation and to just keep raiding. Asset forfeiture laws allow police to seize large amounts of money and assets in pot busts. In 2014, Mendocino County seized $5.2 million in assets, including $3.9 million in cash.The Mendocino District Attorney's Office takes things even further with its "restitution" program, which co-opts a law intended to pay for meth lab clean-ups to extract more money from growers. Basically, the DA approaches busted growers with a deal: Give us some cash for each pound confiscated and you get no jail time. The amount is negotiable. Officially, it's $50 per plant and $500 per pound, but it often ends up in the tens of thousands of dollars. The funds then get divided up between the DA and the arresting agency, creating a revenue stream with little democratic oversight. Restitution money accounted for more than 10 percent of the 2014–2015 budget for the Mendocino County Sheriff's Office.

click to enlarge More than 10 percent of Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman's budget comes from "restitution" funds extracted from cannabis farmers. - ADRIAN FERNANDEZ BAUMANN
  • Adrian Fernandez Baumann
  • More than 10 percent of Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman's budget comes from "restitution" funds extracted from cannabis farmers.

Bauer had told me that I could tag along during a visit to Island Mountain, but after he sent me the message, he went out of cellphone range. After a couple days, I decided to drive out to find him. I had some vague tips about where he might be, but mostly just figured I'd ask someone where all the cops were. I stopped in a general store where the shopkeeper explained that the store had been empty the last few days because everyone had scattered with the raids. This is the pattern each summer: The police convoy hits the road, someone spots it, and within minutes, word courses through the community. In the general store, various people lamented the scale of grows, the brazenness of it, the greed, and, of course, the damage to the environment. Yet along with snacks and health food, the store sells soil stacked on whole pallets in front. People denounce pot industry greed all day long, but the nurseries, hardware stores, car dealerships, and real estate agents never say "no" to the money produced by the green. As I walked out, the store manager bemoaned the newcomers with their giant grows, right before pointing a young man to the pallet of soil.


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