CA: A Rural County Legalized Marijuana Farms. It Took Their Tax Money – Then Voted To Ban Them

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Photo Credit: Mel Melcon

Dennis Mills peered over his shoulder at the green hills below, where marijuana farms dotted the Calaveras County landscape.

“There’s another one!” he told the pilot with a laugh. The Cessna doubled back so Mills, a county supervisor, could steal a second look at a slope where trees had recently been removed.

From above, Mills said, it’s impossible to tell which cannabis cultivation sites are legal. But it didn’t matter to him. Every single one has to go.

Marijuana growers poured into this county known for gold mines and Mark Twain’s short story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” hoping for a green rush after recreational cannabis was legalized in 2016. That pot boom ended abruptly when the Calaveras County Board of Supervisors voted to ban all commercial cultivation last month.

The debate here reflects a different side of the mania that has swept the state since the sale of recreational marijuana rolled out in January. As some places move to position themselves as pot havens, more conservative counties have decided they want nothing to do with cannabis — either selling it or growing it.

“It’s really simple. This isn’t grapes and it’s not tomatoes. It’s marijuana, and it’s a drug,” Angels Camp resident Vicky Reinke said.

Although 57% of Californians voted to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, more than a dozen counties like Calaveras voted against it. And after previously supporting it, this Northern California county has suddenly veered hard against marijuana cultivation.

The county’s stance has some growers feeling betrayed. Cultivators say they started businesses here with good intentions and want to provide tax revenue to the government. Now, they feel officials have stabbed them in the back — after taking their money.

“We’ve spent everything we have to survive and make it as legitimate as we can,” said Jeremy Maddux, a medical marijuana cultivator.

Just two years before, marijuana had seemed to offer a path to salvation.

The 2015 Butte wildfire had ripped through nearly 71,000 acres in Amador and Calaveras counties and left millions of dollars in damages behind. More than 900 structures were destroyed in the two counties, according to Cal Fire. Some residents left the community, deciding not to rebuild.

County supervisors embraced legalizing cannabis as a way for the local economy to generate revenue that could help it recover. Enticed by cheap land and friendly laws, the rural county of 45,000 people saw an influx of pot growers.

Not long after, however, anti-pot supervisors, including Mills, were elected to the five-member board. They had promised to ban cultivation in Calaveras County. In January they scored a victory with a 3-2 vote ordering growers to cease operations by June.

By then, Calaveras had collected $3.7 million in $5,000 registration fees from more than 700 cannabis cultivators, according to Supervisor Michael Oliveira. The county has earned nearly $10 million from growers since voters approved a cultivation tax in 2016, he said, and about $3 million of that has gone toward balancing the budget.

Cultivators who applied for permits and opened up farms are threatening to sue. Oliveira said he anticipates multiple lawsuits. He voted against the ban because “it took away too many rights,” he said.

“It didn’t address the money we collected,” Oliveira said. “They’re going to tear that apart in court.”

Driving his buggy down the winding gravel road below his home, Maddux said he has paid nearly six figures in marijuana taxes since 2016.

“And another six figures for permits and bringing things up to code,” he said as he pulled up to one of his grow sites.

The hooped tent perched on one of the hills on his property houses rows of young marijuana plants of different varieties. As he walked among the 3-week-old stalks, he said the rush for cultivation licenses in California is the cannabis industry equivalent of the dot-com-era boom.

“We’re just trying to be at the forefront of it,” said Maddux, who plans to hire an attorney as a result of the ban.

Maddux, 44, and his wife Michelle, have worked hard to dispel the idea that all pot farmers are criminal cartel members looking to skirt the law. Maddux insists he and others who applied for permits want regulations and will gladly pay taxes to fund law enforcement’s fight against illegal marijuana operations.

“We are local family farmers,” Michelle Maddux, 43, said. “We are part of this community … we coach soccer, our kids go to school here.”

Tim Bennett, who owns an electrical contracting business that serves the area, said his company was able to find work amid declining construction jobs because of the marijuana industry.

“We put our guys to work for cannabis-related projects,” Bennett said. “To open the door and then shut the door is detrimental to our county and to construction workers.”

Growing marijuana is still a federal crime, Reinke said, and it’s too difficult for the county to monitor all the cannabis being grown in the area.

“The state of California has now made their citizens drug dealers,” she said. “You don’t take drug money to run your county …. It’s dirty money. Why do we continue to allow to this to happen?”

Some residents say they fear gang violence and worry that allowing cultivation will only encourage more illicit operations.

One woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she fears retaliation from illegal growers, said gang members who lived on a nearby property a couple of years ago were growing marijuana as well as storing other drugs and guns. A video on her cellphone shows her feeding her horses as gunshots pop off in the background.

Now, she says, her relatives won’t visit her because they think the area is unsafe.

“My family was here in the pool and the gunshots started,” she said. “After that, they said they wouldn’t be coming over anymore.”

Calaveras County Sheriff Rick DiBasilio estimated that there are about 1,000 illicit grows in the county. With only a handful of deputies, he said, it’s a constant struggle to stay on top of them. The sheriff said he supports any policy that would provide his department with the money needed to go after illegal growers.

“I have other sheriffs, other chiefs, calling me and asking ‘What are you doing about this? How are you dealing with that?’” DiBasilio said. “I’m like, I don’t have the answer. It’s a big yo-yo game.”

Mills, the county supervisor, said he is concerned about the environmental impact growing marijuana may have. The pesticides used to maintain farms can flow from the grow sites into the watershed, he said, potentially contaminating the Mokelumne River, a critical part of the region’s water supply.

“It’s damage over time, not just what’s happening today.” Mills said as he walked through the site of an illegal grow that authorities shut down last October.

Navigating his way through the lot littered with empty fertilizer jugs and plastic bags filled with dirt, Mills stepped up to a creek that growers had dammed with logs. They had mixed the water with chemicals to feed the plants, he said.

Cannabis cultivators argue that regulations — and the money they would bring — would provide the resources needed to protect the environment.

Mills said he was also concerned that allowing marijuana grows would ruin the community’s rustic character.

The urgency ordinance that initially allowed cannabis cultivation was always meant to be temporary, he added. He said “there was no guarantee” cultivation would always be allowed and likened growers who invested in marijuana to gamblers in Las Vegas who know there’s a chance they could lose their money.

“People have had it,” said Bill McManus, chairman of the Committee to Ban Commercial Cultivation, a grassroots group. “I don’t even recognize Calaveras County anymore …. If we wanted to live like this we would have gone to Oakland.”

But Prapanna Smith, who runs an indoor growing operation at a business park near the town of Murphys, said the ban opens “the door to illegal, unbridled cultivation.”

The debate is no longer about cultivators, Smith said, but about the whole county because as growers lose their investments, the county would lose its tax money. Local businesses will lose money because growers won’t be around to purchase equipment and supplies at their stores, he added.

“The underground guys are going to buy elsewhere and bring it in,” Smith said. “They’re not going to the Ace Hardware in Angels Camp.”

Some licensed cultivators have banded together to try to push out the recently elected anti-pot supervisors. Maddux, the grower, served Mills a notice of intent to circulate a recall petition at Board of Supervisors meeting last month. Another cultivator also served Supervisor Gary Tofanelli at the same meeting.

Smith said the ban squashes his chances of making his first million dollars after years of hard work.

Calaveras is a poor county sitting on a new kind of gold mine, he insisted. And that means cultivators won’t go down without a fight.

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