It was hot without air conditioning at the Veterans Hall in Valley Springs Thursday night and it got hotter when the audience responded to comments by panelists who made opposing claims about the future of commercial cannabis production in Calaveras County.
Ban proponent Bill McManus claimed that growers are unmanaged and unenforced, prompting applause from many in the audience. There were boos when Merita Callaway, a supporter of the Measure D plan to regulate the industry, pleaded for patience and asserted that it is better to regulate the industry.
The second installment in a series of debates on the cannabis industry was billed as a discussion between McManus and Callaway. But when audience members settled into their seats, Calaveras Cannabis Alliance executive director Caslin Tomaszewski was seated between the two. McManus was seated at the end of a table on stage right while Callaway held the stage left seat.
About midway through the evening, a few members of the audience called for Tomaszewski’s ouster from the stage.
“You were not invited. What the hell are you doing up there?” said ban proponent and former District 5 Planning Commissioner David Tunno. Tunno resigned his commission seat on May 12 in protest of the Board of Supervisors decision to regulate rather than ban cannabis production.
Eventually, Tomaszewski bowed to calls that he was uninvited, stepped down from the stage and observed the remainder of the debate from the side of the hall.
“I thought he was very knowledgeable and well-spoken,” said event master of ceremonies Don Urbanus, who was there on behalf of the Valley Springs Area Business Association, which sponsored the event. “But I guess some people didn’t like that.”
“We thought it (the debate) was really important and we wanted to put it out there so people could make up their minds,” Urbanus said. “But it looks like they’ve already done that.”
The planned format included an opening statement from McManus, followed by an opener from Callaway, but Tomaszewski was tapped by Urbanus to began the discussion and told the audience that his association had convinced the Board of Supervisors by 2015 to halt its plans to consider a ban and instead to move toward regulation.
He said, “There is constant pressure to grow here. Calaveras has one of the best growing climates in the state the land is low cost.” He added that there are more than 1,000 cannabis farm in the county now and “we’re trying to teach ethical practices to the growers.”
He described an “ethical divide” between growers who are working for quick turnover and those who have families and ties to the community and want to be registered and accepted. He said attempts to ban cannabis cultivation in other counties have failed due to lack of funding.
“The registration program we are building here will support law enforcement and code enforcement and in time, the bad guys will go away. But it will take time,” he said. He predicted that adequate enforcement from the Sheriff’s Office and from code enforcers from the Building Department will not come until more than a year from now, during the 2017 harvest season.
“We want to pay for this and the first step is the urgency ordinance. Then there’s a tax measure on the ballot that needs to pass,” he said.
The urgency ordinance that was passed by the board of supervisors on May 10 could be superseded by Measure D on the November ballot. To date, the county’s urgency ordinance has brought in $3.7 million in registration fees, money that is restricted to administration and enforcement of the registered grower program.
The tax measure, Measure C on the November ballot, would bring in funds from cannabis growers independent of the registered grower program. That money could be used at the discretion of the board of supervisors. Representatives of the county government and the Calaveras Cannabis Alliance estimate Measure C tax income between $12 million and $20 million a year.
McManus said that he and other ban proponents don’t want the money because they believe it comes with other changes that are unwelcomed.
“I know people who were brutalized by the Butte Fire and now they’re being brutalized by pot growers with their pit bulls and generators. These people are scared to death and this is not the life we came to Calaveras County for,” said McManus near the start of his opening statement.
“We are going to keep on and push and push until we make this community what it was when I came up here 30 years ago,” he said. “And that means an outright ban on all pot growing.”
Loud applause followed.
Callaway said the Board of Supervisors and the Sheriff’s Office are “abiding by state law and the will of the people of California.” She gave an overview of the medical marijuana laws enacted since 1996. The Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act adopted last year is creating a statewide bureaucracy to regulate medical cannabis that will take full effect in 2018.
“So it’s here. Do you ban it or regulate it?” she said. Callaway described cannabis growing in Calaveras County prior to the board urgency ordinance and her group’s Measure D as an underground economy that was unregulated.
“The bulk of Measure D is based on the urgency ordinance passed by the Board of Supervisors, 80 percent to 85 percent of it,” she said. Measure D provides four areas of control: land use, security, environmental oversight and water protection.
She said that under Measure D, growers must comply with all regulations of the State Water Resources Control Board, be subject to annual background checks and register with the county.
Her presentation was followed by scattered applause.
“The urgency ordinance is terrible and is almost totally unenforceable,” said McManus in rebuttal. “I’m telling you it is all a lie.”
He also said that Measure C, the tax measure on the fall ballot, is also “totally unenforceable.”
“Don’t be fooled that this is somehow a financial windfall for the county,” McManus said.
He said the funds to support enforcement of a ban are currently available, but they need to be allocated by the board of supervisors. “You have five people in San Andreas who are not listening to the people.”
Urbanus asked Callaway if she would like to respond to McManus. “I’m always happy to rebut Mr. McManus,” she said.
“There is no way that this county or any county can ban cannabis” Callaway said. “It might sound good. It might feel good. But it isn’t going to happen.”
Callaway said enforcement of the new regulations and protection for citizens will come, but “It will take probably more than a year for the regulations to go into effect. We need to be patient.”
During the question-and-answer session, speakers asked about funding for enforcement following a ban, whether passage of measures D and C would support jobs for young adults, and how soon protection would be available from the Sheriff’s Office and code enforcement workers.
“How do you plan to get educated young adults back into the county?” asked Justice Rasmussen. Currently employed in the cannabis industry, Rasmussen said his employer told him he may lose his job if the measures fail to pass.
McManus replied that the only way to bring educated youth back to Calaveras was to provide a strong family network that is independent of the cannabis industry. “We don’t think there is a future as a pot-trimmer,” he said.
Rasmussen said he has no plans to work as a trimmer. He said he is a candidate for a county job as an agricultural biologist and weights and measures inspector. He said the job is dependent on whether the county continues to regulate the cannabis industry. He is a graduate of California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo.
“How do we get the money to enforce the industry with a ban?” asked Bob Bowerman. Bowerman is a founder of the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws, Sacramento chapter, and a candidate for District 5 supervisor in the November election to recall sitting District 5 Supervisor Steve Kearney.
“We don’t believe it is our responsibility to come up with the funding,” said McManus. “There is plenty of money in Calaveras County. It is a matter of allocation.”
“I’m not opposed to either medical or recreational marijuana, but what if my cows break into a marijuana field and eat $300,000 worth of marijuana? Am I liable?” asked Franci Schabram, an owner of Rana Ranch near Valley Springs. A registered cannabis farm has been built a few hundred yards from the front gate of her ranch.
“Right now, I only see a big, big mess,” she said.