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Pot Growers Scramble as Sheriff Steps Up Enforcement

Deputies are cracking down on the black market to make legalization work

The county sheriff’s department has been cracking down on illegal black-market weed grows, in part so that the regulated market at local dispensaries can thrive. PHOTO: KEANA PARKER
[This is part one of a two-part series on Santa Cruz County’s cannabis industry. — Editor]

High in the mountainous hinterlands above Boulder Creek, where the steep, bumpy road is passable only by four-wheel drive and cell reception is all but a rumor, there is a greenhouse that once held 250-square-feet worth of cannabis plants. Now, it’s empty.

For nearly a decade, property owner “Bam,” as he’s known by friends, has been living on the property and growing cannabis, some of it for his own medicinal use and that of a few friends, he says.

Bam says cannabis helps alleviate his symptoms of Lyme disease, and lessens mood swings stemming from a traumatic brain injury.

In July, Bam got a visit from the county’s Cannabis Licensing Office, which includes a contingent from the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office. Officials notified him that he was growing the plants—as well as distributing and manufacturing cannabis-related products—without a license.

After cutting down all the plants, they searched his home for contraband, he says.

Thanks to a set of county regulations crafted in 2018 to help ease the county into the legal market, Bam has not been charged criminally. However, he now faces $7,500 in administrative citations, and an additional $10,000 in red-tag fines, he says.

“It’s been a nightmare,” Bam says. “They are trying to break the bank for people who have no bank.”

POT TO WORRY

The Cannabis Licensing Office includes Cannabis Licensing Manager Sam LoForti, one principal planner and two code compliance officers. It also includes Chief Deputy Steve Carney, who oversees two sheriff’s deputies for the office’s enforcement arm. Carney says his team’s role is to help implement, regulate and enforce the county’s relatively new cannabis ordinances.

Carney says that after Proposition 64 passed in 2016, many government agencies quickly learned that California needed tough law enforcement to crack down on the black market. Otherwise, users would not have much incentive to buy weed legally. “Our continued goal in working in the cannabis office is to help the regulated market flourish,” Carney says.

Enforcement operations begin at a property, Carney explains, when the licensing office receives complaints. The sheriff’s office provides security and offers law enforcement advice during the visits, he says.

Investigations largely begin after findings of bad behavior, like environmental degradation, money laundering or interstate transport, Carney says.

Carney says enforcement strategies have changed from the days when violators were merely mailed letters informing them they were out of compliance.

“We weren’t having success, because the people would just move illegal activities elsewhere,” Carney says. “We were trying to work with folks instead, but that didn’t get much traction because people were taking advantage of it.”

In April, authorities seized 540 pounds of processed marijuana and more than $140,000 from five properties suspected of skirting the county’s cultivation rules. Businesses faced charges such as money laundering and tax evasion.

The sheriff’s office has executed 55 criminal search warrants at 65 sites since January, Carney says. Earlier this year, his team confiscated 900 plants from a grower in the San Lorenzo Valley, issuing a warning since it was the first offense, he says. The team returned in September to find the person was still growing. He’s now facing a felony cultivation charge and a “substantial” civil fine, Carney says. The suspect, Carney adds, was damaging the environment in their own backyard by diverting water from a local stream and contaminating the runoff.

Santa Cruz County Supervisor Ryan Coonerty says environmental damage and fire risk are two reasons that county policy calls for reducing the number of small grows in the mountains.

“We want to move it to places that are zoned for commercial agriculture,” he says. “It’s not easy, but we’ve tried to do it in a way that works for the environment and neighborhoods.”

Coonerty says that by June 2021, the county plans to have licensed all qualified registrants who have applied for state and local permits, with a target of 102.

“We’re hoping to get people into business as quickly as we can,” he says.

Bam and growers like him have opined that moving mountain grows into Pajaro Valley greenhouses would be an unfortunate step away from the terroir that makes the county’s cannabis unique.

Bam also argues that the “vast majority” of growers are small-scale farmers who are hoping for a license and a chance to fly on the right side of the law.

“Do you know how much I would love to just be able to pay my taxes like a normal citizen, and go about my business and be thought of as an asset to this community?” he says. “Do you know what a badge of honor that would be?”

SHINING A LIGHT

Given the resources involved in the county’s effort, Santa Cruz cannabis attorney Trevor Luxon argues that the county has misplaced its priorities. The county has five people working enforcement and two processing applications.

“If county leaders directed more of the resources to licensing, they wouldn’t have to worry so much about enforcement,” he says

Luxon says that many of his clients are caught in a no-win situation, where they must either put their livelihoods on hold while waiting for their applications to be processed or take their chances growing without a permit.

Such growers have nowhere to sell their wares legally, since California law requires distributors and retail establishments to show they purchased from a licensed cultivator.

Once caught in the system, they’re slapped with administrative fines that start at $2,500 and can be as high as $7,500. They can also be hit with misdemeanor charges for illegal cultivation. If officials find illegal items such as firearms, illegal drugs or evidence of sales to minors, they can be charged with felonies.

GROWN UNKNOWN

For those looking to procure a cannabis cultivation license, the county charges a $1,500 pre-application fee, and an overall fee of $3,500 per site. Applicants must also pay $100 for background checks and $300 for on-site inspections. Additional fees are possible.

In all, local permitting can run from $3,000-8,000, says Cannabis Licensing Manager Sam LoForti.

LoForti acknowledges that commercial use permits are difficult to obtain, and that the required infrastructure improvements can be expensive. He stresses, though, that local cannabis licensing isn’t treated differently than any other permitting process in the county, and that it was created to help safely regulate a burgeoning industry.

“These are standards the state has, and mainly they are driven by state law,” he says. “We’re not going to change safety-related standards for any type of development.”

According to LoForti, there are about 28 use permits in process, and more than 50 operators are working toward their permits.

The two-stage process includes a pre-application screening, which can take up to two months. Growers also need a use permit application—an expensive proposition because it has to be drafted by professional engineers and must follow state code, LoForti says. Only one pre-application has been denied.

Once approved, growers must follow size minimums based on zoning and parcel size. Mountain areas, for example, need at least 5 acres.

To bring more growers into compliance, the county in May eased rules for those who use commercial agricultural land. Growers using greenhouses will no longer be required to go through a public hearing or notify neighbors.

Still, the Cannabis Licensing Office will continue to enforce local regulations as it acculturates to a legalized marijuana industry that generated $144.2 million in the second quarter of this year alone.

“We have a regulated market people need to get used to,” says Santa Cruz County spokesman Jason Hoppin. “This isn’t the Wild West. Those days are over.”

5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. SC Citizen

    October 17, 2019 at 3:09 pm

    I agree!
    The Hypocrisy
    The Cannabis License Fail
    AND
    The Truth!
    How is this acceptable in our “forward thinking” community?
    This is all by design to secure market share for a select connected/invested few. How is it that same people who have spent the last 20 years working for the city – persecuting cannabis producers and downplaying the medical benefits – are now the ones being issued distribution, extraction, and cultivation permits???

  2. The Hypocrisy

    October 11, 2019 at 2:54 pm

    This is taken from the County Code. What a bunch of hypocrites. Read section E. The County is pointing the finger while acting in the same manner.

    7.122.040 Findings.
    The people of the County of Santa Cruz make the following findings:

    (A) Safe and Effective Medicine. Scientific and medical studies by the National Academy of Science have shown cannabis/marijuana to be a safe and effective medicine with very low toxicity compared to most prescription drugs. It has been shown to be effective in the treatment of glaucoma; epilepsy; muscle spasticity; arthritis; the nausea, vomiting and appetite loss associated with chemotherapies; anxiety and depression; and the symptoms of withdrawal from alcohol and narcotics.

    (B) Doctors and Patients Need the Cannabis/Marijuana Option. Studies show that one-third of all cancer patients discontinue potentially life-saving chemotherapy due to the severe and debilitating side effects. The same is true for many AIDS patients receiving AZT or other similar therapies. Most physicians surveyed said that they would prescribe cannabis/marijuana if legally available. Half of all cancer specialists surveyed said that they have already encouraged at least one of their patients to break the law and use cannabis/marijuana to ease the violent nausea and vomiting associated with their current treatments.

    (C) United Nations Approves Prescription Marijuana. In May of 1991, the United Nations Narcotic Control Board voted overwhelmingly to reclassify cannabis/marijuana, placing it back on Schedule 2, and making it available by prescription. The United States Representative to this Board voted in favor of rescheduling.

    (D) Federal Court Orders Prescription Marijuana. Despite a Federal court order recognizing the “clearly established medical value” of cannabis/marijuana, and mandating that it be reclassified to Schedule 2 and available by prescription, the Federal government continues to deny access to this safe and effective medicine.

    (E) Politics Before Patients. By its own admission, the Federal government continues to deny access to cannabis/marijuana for political rather than medical reasons. Using patients as pawns in the ever-escalating war on drugs, current policies place message before medicine, convenience before compassion, and politics before patients. [Added by Measure A, November 3, 1992].

  3. Cannabis License Fail

    October 9, 2019 at 5:11 pm

    “… local cannabis licensing isn’t treated differently than any other permitting process in the county, and that it was created to help safely regulate a burgeoning industry.”
    Did the county require all homes built before the planning dept was established to be demolished? No! They were grandfathered in just as our small mountain farmers should have been grandfathered in. The county has destroyed a perfectly fine decades old local industry.
    The C4 group concluded this.
    The EIR concluded this.
    Bringing all our farmers into a regulated system was the answer.

  4. The Truth

    October 9, 2019 at 4:41 am

    Thanks for covering this topic, unfortunately this doesn’t paint the story quite as accurately as the community would hope. As usual, there is far too much perspective of the county and its Cannabis Licensing Office’s perspective about the chain of events that has transpired. The sad reality is that the statements given by Carney and LoForti’s office are disingenuous at best.

    “Our continued goal in working in the cannabis office is to help the regulated market flourish,” Carney says.

    There goal isn’t being met. Their goal is clearly an extra-judicial form of tax collection. Anyone that has been victimized by the eradication team can tell you first hand, that their goal isn’t to help people get licensed and come into compliance. This is a money grab. Their failed policy of licensing, which seems like planned failure having dealt with them, is being covered up by their attempts to milk people with ridiculous fines, that are being handed out like candy and nicely supplementing the lack of tax revenue that their “regulated cannabis” has failed to bring in for the community.

    “Enforcement operations begin at a property, Carney explains, when the licensing office receives complaints.”

    Lies. There is no complaint mechanism that is driving these raids and this terror. This is strictly a money grab. You can look at the amount of resources that are being spent on tracking down the grows, the vast majority of which are medically compliant grows, in remote parts of the county, where a large percentage of the neighbors participate in medical gardens. If you want to fact check, take a look at the Sheriff’s airplane flight records. It will show almost weekly sweeps of the county as they fly overhead looking for gardens to raid and victims to issue their ridiculously high citations to. These citations and their licensing process are designed to inflict maximum financial damage, while denying the victims of their due process and equal protection before the law. It is literally extra-judicial justice, because to appeal their citations, you have to appear before their kangaroo court, where there is no formal process for discovery, and you are guilty until proven innocent, and then forced to give testimony, that can and will be used against you if they decide to pursue criminal charges. They have masterfully stacked the odds of justice against everyone, and turned the judicial system on its head through administrative maneuvers.

    “In all, local permitting can run from $3,000-8,000, says Cannabis Licensing Manager Sam LoForti.”

    This might be the biggest joke and lie of all those told. If you can find me a single person that can get a license for that sum of money, I’m calling corruption. Speak with a local attorney, or anyone that has been through the process, and find out what their total out of pocket costs to get licensed was. The cheapest that I’ve heard from anyone, is in the ball park of $60-80,000. They have stacked the hurdles so high, that very few can afford to pay to play, unless they sell out their entrepreneurial spirit to corporate investors, and pour their money into the ridiculously overpriced real estate of the county’s agricultural land holding barons, who will charge non-cannabis growers $0.15 per square foot, while gouging cannabis farmers at well over a $1.00 per square foot. A hidden tax? Or wealth transfer? However you cut it, it is corruption in the name of regulation.

    “To bring more growers into compliance, the county in May eased rules for those who use commercial agricultural land. Growers using greenhouses will no longer be required to go through a public hearing or notify neighbors.”

    Again, who does that benefit? Does that assist any of the homesteaders that have been growing some of the state’s most award winning and standard setting cannabis in these mountains for years? No, this is a forced transfer of wealth to an area that might be great for growing strawberries and cut flowers, but isn’t really ideal for growing cannabis, and more importantly isn’t necessarily the most sustainable outcome. Growing cannabis below the marine layer comes with all sorts of challenges and is much more energy intensive than the county would lead you to believe.

    “Santa Cruz County Supervisor Ryan Coonerty says environmental damage and fire risk are two reasons that county policy calls for reducing the number of small grows in the mountains.”

    The are not reducing the numbers in the mountains, they are eradicating the mountain farming community. It is affecting businesses and changing the demographics of the mountains. While there have been bad actors that have resulted in some environmental issues, the vast majority of farmers don’t fall into that category, and it is a stereotypical point the finger answer. If the county was so concerned about environmental damage, and fire risks, there are solutions that don’t involve destroying people’s crops, and citing them huge fines that are extremely financially punishing. The mountain communities are not swimming in money, and the county wasted lots of time and money with their C4 committee which gathered a lot of feedback from the community at large in an attempt to address these issues and pave a workable process, yet little of substance or workability from a small farmer perspective was incorporated into their final plan.

    This is a well designed system of planned failure and eradication. They have worked every loop hole to deny growers the ability to get licensed, extract huge fines, and give the public the sham illusion of a workable licensing process.

    “The two-stage process includes a pre-application screening, which can take up to two months. Growers also need a use permit application—an expensive proposition because it has to be drafted by professional engineers and must follow state code, LoForti says. Only one pre-application has been denied.”

    They won’t even take a pre-application unless it meets their narrow agenda. For months applicants weren’t even able to pay the fees for a pre-application. I know that from March up until about July this year, possibly longer, they were not processing payments for applications due to some issue with their payment system. Isn’t is odd that they can take payments for their citations and fines, but can’t take payments for pre-application fees? It is just another example of the tyranny and stonewalling of the community, and the push to eradicate mom and pop, small farmers out, and make room for big agricultural and corporate takeover. Shame on you Santa Cruz County, this isn’t the liberal progressive dream that it once was, the county has taken a staunchly conservative and heavy handed approach to licensing that benefits the few and the expensive of everyone. The result? Limited choice, small businesses in the county feeling the pinch, and overpriced mediocracy grown in unsustainable greenhouses where a failed ornamental flower industry once thrived and the expense of a once thriving community of mountain farmers that are being decimated. Bravo.

    “We have a regulated market people need to get used to,” says Santa Cruz County spokesman Jason Hoppin. “This isn’t the Wild West. Those days are over.”

    Great punchline tough guy. No one was asking for the Wild West, the community has been seeking a workable path to regulation, one that seeks to address the needs of community, and one that is actually tangible. The failed policies of the county and the ridiculous regulatory burdens, mostly posed by the county’s chosen path of regulation is the reason that most of these people have been made outlaws. Good regulation leads to good outcomes. This is poor regulation, paired with poor outcomes, and terribly disingenuous actors like Hoppin, Carney, LoForti, and the board of clowns that are running the show, and continue to turn a blind eye to the have nots, in favor of their millionaire donor rolls. Carney doesn’t even believe in the medical benefits of cannabis, and has a history of making a living on eradication teams, is it really wise to put an antagonist in charge of regulating a sector of the industry that they have disdain for? The well oiled political machine has pulled the wool over the populations eyes long enough, and too much inadequate media coverage is partially to blame. Wake up Santa Cruz. Stay away from the local cannabis businesses that are funding this war on terror, and according to Sheriff’s office, driving the complaints against the traditional cannabis farming community. Find out what your local cannabis business is doing about working towards better regulation, you’ll likely find absolutely nothing. The less competition the better for business, and the fewer choices you have as a consumer.

    • Sclady

      October 17, 2019 at 1:27 pm

      PREACH!!

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