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Delta Town Continues to Pin Financial Hopes on Stalled Pot Farm

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ISLETON -- Leaders of this struggling Delta town north of Antioch still hope that a medical marijuana farm will remedy its financial woes.

But so far, the project has brought only threats of federal and local prosecution to the community of 800.

The partially built greenhouses that city leaders had hoped would generate $300,000 annually sat empty this week, encircled by barbed-wire fences.

The man behind the project backed off after a warning from federal authorities and the Sacramento County grand jury began investigating the enterprise and city leaders' approval of it.

"When the Department of Justice sends a warning letter, you simply need to listen," said William Portonova, the Sacramento attorney for Michael Brubeck, who headed Delta Allied Growers. "It's an act of kindness that generally is not repeated. If you don't heed it, you are at risk of being charged."

City leaders interviewed this week defended their approval of the pot farm and expressed hope that it will materialize into a much-needed revenue source.

One councilman said it upsets him that in Sacramento legislators can collect fees and taxes from marijuana dispensaries while Isle ton is being investigated for accepting Brubeck's money.

"There's a witch hunt in Sacramento," Councilman Robert Jankovitz said.

Under its pact with Brubeck, the city has been taking about $25,000 a month from Brubeck's company, and that could increase to 3 percent of gross sales over that amount.

City Manager Bruce Pope said the City Council had rejected numerous medical marijuana dispensary proposals but decided to allow the farm under strict conditions. The city would not allow Brubeck to sell marijuana in the city, and it would require the business to pay for hiring several police officers to monitor its operation.

"Faced with an application for a business that is legal in the state of California, we took our land-use tools and applied them in such a way that we get the greatest amount of control to protect the public's health and general welfare," Pope said.

Based on the agreement, Brubeck, a San Francisco resident and nephew of jazz legend Dave Brubeck, began building a 4,000-square-foot pot farm.

Brubeck went to Isleton because he knew the city needed financial help, said Scott Hawkins, spokesman for Delta Allied Growers.

The town once known for its annual Crawdad Festival has struggled financially for several years and has been the subject of other investigations. In the 1990s, it made about $400,000 annually from concealed weapons permits issued by the police chief. The state shut down the program, and the police chief was fired.

In 2008, a grand jury investigated alleged financial improprieties and missing money. It called for the city to disband, claiming it was "in a state of perpetual crisis."

The $300,000 a year in pot farm proceeds would have helped revive the city, which has a budget of $1.7 million this fiscal year, Jankovitz said.

"There's empty building after empty building downtown," he said. "In a two-month period in 2010, five or six businesses closed up. They are still closing."

The city was forced to cancel the Crawdad Festival, and even the chamber of commerce temporarily went out of business in 2008, Jankovitz said.

In April, a Sacramento County grand jury and District Attorney Jan Scully subpoenaed all City Council members, Pope, Brubeck and several of his employees.

The specifics of the grand jury investigation are unknown. The state legality of marijuana farms that operate as businesses is unclear, a Scully spokeswoman said.

City employees, elected officials and others who testified were granted immunity from prosecution, Jankovitz said.

"Now we wait for the grand jury to find out where it's going to go," he said. "If they continue down the path to granting everybody immunity, there will be no one left to charge."

Delta Allied Growers had begun to build five large greenhouses in early May when U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner sent city leaders a cease-and-desist letter.

Wagner said that though state law may permit marijuana farms, federal law does not. He threatened prosecution if the project continued. A similar letter was sent to officials in other states where large marijuana farms were planned. An Oakland pot farm plan died after such a letter was sent in 2010.

"All marijuana farms break federal law," said Brubeck's attorney, Portonova. "There is a conflict between California law and federal law. The area in between is a no man's land."

Lauren Horwood, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office in Sacramento, said the agency does not target individual medical marijuana users but does go after illegal drug traffickers. She did not say whether Brubeck's farm would have been considered an illegal trafficker.

If medical marijuana is legal, it has to come from somewhere, Pope said.

"I think it's a little naive to assume that all people with medical marijuana cards will grow their own," he said.

Hawkins said Brubeck will instead pursue medical marijuana technology ventures, such as "dosage-based technology to administer medical marijuana to qualified patients."

That project will not be in Isleton, Hawkins said.

Pope said that if the farm project officially dies, Brubeck will have to remove the greenhouses. Brubeck had paid Isleton about $200,000 through May.

"It was revenue earned under that agreement; it's unrefundable," Pope said.

Brubeck has asked the city to allow him to stop the monthly $25,000 payments until the issue is resolved. The City Council will take that up next month.

Brubeck also is paying the city's legal fees, "which are substantial," Pope said.

Residents' reactions to a city-sanctioned pot farm varied.

State legislators have not shown that they can control use of the drug, said Harvey Mayeda, pastor at Isleton Community United Methodist Church. He opposed having the farm in town, which he said would open the door to other marijuana growers in Isleton.

"In the short term, it would definitely help the city," he said. "In the long term, I don't think it would."

Colin Campbell said he had no opinion of the drug but saw a financial benefit.

"It would be great for the city because of the money," Campbell said. "We lost the Crawdad Festival; it was the only moneymaker we had."

News Hawk- Jacob Ebel 420 MAGAZINE
Source: mercurynews.com
Author: Roman Gokhman
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Copyright: San Jose Mercury News
Website: Delta town continues to pin financial hopes on stalled pot farm
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