Although COVID-19 has interrupted some registration procedures, legalized cannabis cultivation is still coming to Calaveras County.
Some prospective growers are just “days away” from germinating, and more than 100 applicants are in various stages of licensing, Greg Wayland, interim director of the Division of Cannabis Control told the Enterprise in an April 30 phone interview.
With forecasts from local law enforcement that new illegal grow sites could pop up as legal cultivators get started, residents may be wondering about the county’s capacity to respond.
There are various enforcement tools the county has in its tool box to deal with illegal grow sites, but how have they changed since the 2016 Urgency Ordinance, and what policies and procedures may need to improve? How has COVID-19 impacted enforcement?
In the field
Since its inception in 2016, the county’s Marijuana Enforcement Team (MET) has served approximately 200 warrants to raid illegal growing operations, according to Sheriff Rick DiBasilio.
With those raids, the team has busted more than 221 illegal grow sites, arrested 233 people and seized nearly 285,000 plants and tens of thousands of pounds of processed cannabis. The number of sites includes repeated visits by law enforcement.
The growers themselves come to Calaveras County from all over the world – Bulgaria, Romania, England, Australia, El Salvador, Vietnam and more, DiBasilio listed.
Illicit cultivators have traditionally been the ones responsible for any cannabis-related robberies and violent crimes, and would steal from registered farmers before the ban, DiBasilio said.
In 2016, the MET made 72 arrests – the highest in a given year over the last five years.
Attorney General statistics show that aggravated assault cases increased by 47% during the Urgency Ordinance (UO) period between 2015 and 2016.
District Attorney Barbara Yook told the Enterprise in August of 2019 that those numbers were unsurprising, given the massive influx of new residents filtering into the county to grow cannabis at the time.
“During the 2015-2016 time period, as far as homicides and robberies and assaults, that’s absolutely what we saw,” she said.
Despite the unpromising statistics, circumstances have changed quite a bit this time around.
DiBasilio said the Sheriff’s Office is “more prepared all the way around” to address a potential uptick in crime than it was during the UO period, citing the approximate 75% decrease in the number of eligible applicants, new MET hires, zoning restrictions to keep cannabis out of neighborhoods and lessons learned since 2016.
“The first two years were hard, because we were so overwhelmed,” DiBasilio said. “There was a big learning curve, but we’ve got a team together now that is more dialed in because we know what to look for.”
The department in recent months used asset forfeiture monies to pick up a skid steer tractor and a truck to haul the trailer, which will allegedly cut third-party contracting costs and streamline eradication efforts.
Search warrants used to cost the county upwards of $4,000 when contracting with a third party for eradication services, DiBasilio said.
“The number of eradications will go up, and now because we have two more deputies, we’ll have more manpower,” DiBasilio added.
Last grow season, the department was busting four to six grows per week, sometimes twice in one day.
Efforts to raid illegal grows have slowed down quite a bit due to COVID-19, but activity has picked up recently, DiBasilio said. The team has been doing flyovers and busted a site near Glencoe earlier this month, according to DiBasilio.
DiBasilio said that if the funding were available, he would double the size of the operation in the hopes of scaring illicit growers away from the county.
Two million dollars annually could pay for eight deputies, two tractors, trailers and trucks to haul away plant matter.
With the added chunk of change, “I think we could make such an impact to illegal growers that in a year or two, potentially three years, they wouldn't want to come into our county anymore,” DiBasilio said.
For now, the question remains as to whether new illegal sites will dot the landscape as the new wave of compliant growers start planting.
“I think we’re still going to see an uptick in problems associated with marijuana and we’re going to see (growers) hoping they can come hide in plain site,” DiBasilio said. “That’s why we’re trying to get more people on the MET team to discourage that. But for the time being, we’ve got to remember, they know we did 76 eradications last year. If they grow on 10 sites, the chances of us getting to two or three of them are pretty high, but that means the rest of them they still made money on.”
In the courts
Although the District Attorney’s Office has seen many different types of cannabis-related cases since the county’s first try at regulating cultivation, it’s currently facing circumstantial delays for prosecuting misdemeanor cases, and state laws for charging illegal growers lack teeth, Yook said.
Even before COVID-19, it was the status quo for the majority of workers arrested at illegal cannabis-growing operations to post bail at the jail and be released, according to Yook. The office receives the crime report later and makes a charging decision based on the report and the law.
Yook said misdemeanor cases, the category that illegal growers typically fall into, have been delayed even further due to California’s $0 bail rule, which was passed by the Judicial Council in early April to reduce COVID-19’s spread in the state’s jail population.
Although Yook “understands the rationale and goal” behind the temporary emergency rule, it “poses an unreasonable risk to public safety.”
The DA’s Office is also only allowed to file 10 misdemeanor citations with the court per week due to a rule established by Calaveras County Superior Court Judge Timothy Healy, Yook said. Driving Under the Influence-related cases are an exception to that rule.
Even before the $0 bail rule, the procedural change had been causing significant delays for misdemeanor cases, putting some out for as long as five months from the time of issuance, according to Yook.
“That’s really caused a slow-down,” Yook said, adding, “It used to be a six week delay.”
The larger challenge that remains is that outcomes of criminal cases against illegal growers may not be doing enough to keep them from becoming repeat offenders, which Yook attributes to “loose” state laws.
The Control, Regulate and Tax Adult Use of Marijuana Act (Proposition 64), which California voters passed in 2016, set a penalty of six months in county jail or a fine of $500 for growing more than six plants – even if it’s thousands of plants – without a commercial license.
For black market investors that buy up multiple properties in the county to cultivate, bailing out a trimmer or ditching a property altogether is likely just “the cost of doing business,” Yook said.
Diego Martinez, a local bail bondsman who bails out workers arrested on illegal cannabis grow sites on a monthly basis, corroborated this.
Oftentimes, when trimmers are apprehended, a family member or the property owner will post bail, and “they get out and go back to doing it,” Martinez said.
Instead of arresting people that “just happened to be there when the Sheriff shows up,” the county should impose heavy fines on illegal growers, Martinez said.
Imposing steep fines would require a mixed civil and criminal practice, which the county doesn’t currently have the expertise or resources for, according to Yook.
“We are in the process of building our cannabis-specific mixed civil/criminal practice,” Yook said. “Our ability to make a greater impact on the illegal operations will depend on continued support from the Board of Supervisors.”
Thus, the strongest enforcement measures the county currently has for de-incentivizing illegal growers appear to be administrative.
"Administrative actions have a lower standard of proof and, since they don’t use the court system, can be pursued much faster than criminal actions,” Yook said.
The next part of this story will discuss the county’s administrative enforcement measures for dealing with illegal cannabis cultivation.