California County Wants To Smoke Out Pot Grows

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 in January.

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 percent 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, who has paid a nearly six-figure amount in marijuana taxes since 2016.

Just two years earlier, 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.”

Maddux, 44, and his wife Michelle, have worked hard to dispel the idea that 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,” said Michelle Maddux, 43. “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 this to happen?”

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.

“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.”