CA Gets Tough On Illegal Grows

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California is finally finding a way to push back on illegal cannabis grows while supporting the legal cannabis industry

The state might be following in the footsteps of several California counties by instituting bigger fines and penalties to push out illegal cannabis cultivation. San Bernardino is sponsoring California Assemblyman Thurston Smith’s bill, hoping to get measures similar to the county ordinances the Board of Supervisors passed last December to apply statewide.

California has generally taken two approaches to tamping down the burgeoning illegal trade: increasing civil penalties for illegal cultivation or easing the path to the legal trade.

Lawmakers are finally facing the reality legal cultivators have been dealing with for years now; the costs and regulations on the legal product are so onerous there are huge barriers to entry, while penalties for illegal cultivation are light.

Local governments, and the now possibly the state, are implementing those large civil fines to put the brakes on runaway illegal cultivation.

“California law on cannabis crimes lacks serious penalties,” said San Bernardino Supervisor Dawn Rowe, Vice Chair of the Board of Supervisors in a press release. “If someone grows 7, 700, or 70,000 cannabis plants without a license the punishment is all the same – it is a misdemeanor. State law needs real punishments to eliminate large-scale illegal cannabis farms or rural Californians will continue to suffer.”

San Bernardino’s ordinances apply to growing illegal cannabis; or making and selling products; distributing or delivering products; or renting out land to unlicensed cannabis operations. Fines range from $1,000 to $10,000 for repeated offenses. Property owners could be fined as much as $10,000 a day and bear the costs of cleaning up the mess left after the farms are raided. Those convicted of running an illegal dispensary or distributing could also face jail time.

“(This) abatement ordinance… puts much-needed teeth into San Bernardino County’s efforts to eradicate illegal marijuana cultivation,” San Bernardino County Sheriff Shannon Discus stated.” This will go a long way to addressing quality of life concerns…”

According to Supervisor Dawn Rowe, the money from the large fines the county collects will help with the clean-up of the grow. The county’s ordinance also allows the detrition left behind to be declared a public nuisance and subject to “abatement and discarding” instead of becoming a source of pollution. Things like the “hoop houses,” made of PVC struts covered with many yards of plastic sheeting, and pipes and tubing used for irrigation. There are often sheds, trailers and electrical equipment. The structures where workers lived are full of all kinds of household waste. Often there’s no plumbing on site, so raw sewage adds to the contamination.

To help bring these measures to the rest of California, San Bernardino is sponsoring Assembly Bill 2728 by California Assemblyman Thurston Smith (R-Apple Valley), that would increase the civil penalty from three times to four times the existing license fee for each day of illegal operation. Smith represents the Victor Valley area in Antelope Valley, another area in California’s deserts dealing with burgeoning unlawful cannabis cultivation.

In an interview with KVCR news, Smith said “…The biggest (problem) is the penalties that they are assessing right now are a drop in the bucket to the illegal marijuana grows. These guys are making millions and hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Smith’s bill would set in motion a graduated series of fines, starting at $500 per plant up to $2500 per plant for repeated violations, topping out at $30,000.

Although this is mostly the stick in California’s carrot and stick approach to marijuana enforcement, there was a bit of carrot thrown in: If the proper paperwork is submitted and the license fee is paid in full, the penalties will be dropped.

This approach is more likely to succeed than a bill Smith sponsored in January to reinstate felony penalties for illegal cultivation. A large majority of the California legislature refuses to back any legislation reminiscent of a war on drugs approach that would land more people in prison.

Smith’s colleague, Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles), sponsored AB 2102, a bill that would impose a fine of up to $30,000 per violation for anyone allowing illegal cultivation on their property, not just on open land but inside buildings.

Jones-Sawyer, who represents an area south of downtown Los Angeles, told Cannabis Wire, “Not only do these operators undercut the legal market but their operations…pose a grave threat to public safety.”

Smith and Jones-Sawyer agree on this assessment even though the areas they represent– one a vast rural desert area and the other densely populated urban environment- couldn’t be more different.

Smith said he gets reports of people off roading in the desert, only to be confronted with men with guns guarding cannabis grows.

Already San Bernadino’s approach has yielded results – the number of illegal grows is down by 40% from last year.

Smith’s bill appears to have support in Sacramento, and that might mean California is finally finding a way to push back on this problem while supporting the legal cannabis industry.