Trusting government doesn’t come easy to Northern California weed farmers — not after a drug war that has lasted for four decades. Yet there they were: sixty or so professional outlaws, sitting in folding chairs at the Grange Hall in Laytonville, Mendocino County, with their bushy beards, skeptically eyeing the reps from the water board.
The decades-long war on pot has left growers with a habitual distrust of power and a culture of secrecy. Here in Northern California’s Emerald Triangle — composed of Mendocino, Humboldt, and Trinity counties — it can be considered impolite to ask someone what he or she does for a living. After all, the police are explicitly committed to tearing down the region’s largest industry and employer.
Yet after decades of summer raids, of marines in choppers and deputies hauling woodchippers, the triangle has more pot than ever, more plants, more pounds. It’s a multi-billion dollar industry that, until this year, has flourished with no regulation and no government oversight.
The results of the forty-year experiment in near laissez-faire capitalism coupled with intermittent-yet-harsh crackdowns by law enforcement are myriad, but in recent years much attention has focused on the impact that certain kinds of cannabis cultivation inflict on the environment — a phenomenon that, until 2015, had no real official solution except for more of the same: raids.
But on this warm spring day at the Grange Hall, the water board reps were offering a new strategy: a truce in the old fight. They were hoping to bring growers out of the woods and out of the shadows and work with them.
The crowd looked much like what you’d expect to find in any rural American farm community: a mix of old and young, mostly white and male. Straw hats, rubber boots, and muddy Carhartts abounded, though with a bit of a tie-dye aesthetic mixed in. The talk outside was of weather and soil, but with a joint passed around instead of a beer.
After some preamble, the reps from the regional water board went up to the front. Environmental scientist Connor McIntee, a stocky man in his mid twenties with a reddish blonde ponytail and beard, and geologist Derek Magnuson, also bearded, spoke to the crowd in clumsy bureaucratese. They had only been on the job a few months, under a new program. They were representing the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, a semi-autonomous state agency charged with regulating the quality of surface waters for all watersheds from Tomales Bay in Marin County to the Oregon border.
During the presentation, you could hear the rustle of paper as the farmers flipped through the sheaf of new regulations that the state was proposing. Some people took notes, some just listened. Up front, the informal moderator, Casey O’Neill, encouraged the crowd to hear what water board reps had to say. In his early thirties, short and wiry, with an energetic sense of humor, O’Neill farms two acres of vegetables and cannabis in Mendocino County. A third generation cannabis grower and chair of the Emerald Growers Association, a trade group for cannabis farmers, he’d helped organize the meeting.
O’Neill pointed out that regulation is needed and inevitable, tossing out his repeated refrain that “regulation is coming, and it’s either going to happen to us or by us.”
The water board reps’ basic pitch: Starting this summer, and going fully into effect next spring, the board would regulate cannabis cultivation on the basis of environmental impacts. Growers would be asked to invest time and money in the proper stewardship of the land and in repairing damage that had already been done. In exchange, the board offered, basically, an understanding: the government would give growers time to fix old problems and would provide a them with a framework to diagnose and repair issues. And all of it would be totally, officially, unconcerned with the legality of marijuana.The water board’s unprecedented approach to cannabis in California this year is based in part on the acknowledgement of a paradox: Although the worst actors in the marijuana industry have severely damaged the North Coast’s environment, growers are the only people with enough money — and enough interest in the land — to clean up the mess, including the mess they inherited from the state’s logging industry. In other words, the environment needs pot growers now more than ever, and it needs them to keep making money.
Not surprisingly, many growers in the Triangle welcome the water board’s kinder-gentler approach this year. But they remain wary. And for good reason: Other state and local agencies don’t appear to be ready to work cooperatively with growers and are still relying on raids and crackdowns. On June 22, the Mendocino, Humboldt, and Trinity county sheriff’s departments spearheaded a massive raid on growers in the Island Mountain area of the Emerald Triangle, inviting the California Department of Fish and Wildlife along to document and prosecute environmental crimes. The water board, however, was not invited.
In other words, state agencies that should be working together are instead often working at cross-purposes, and so the atmosphere of paranoia and the fear of cooperating with the government continue along the North Coast, thereby raising concerns that the water board’s new strategy will ultimately fail. And if that were to happen, Northern California’s environmental woes could compound for years to come.
Toward the end of the meeting in Laytonville, an older man with a long white beard, wearing white Hindu robes, stood up. Swami Chaitanya, a representative of the old counter culture, pointed to the decades of raids and the continuing resistance of local officials and law enforcement to try anything new. Although he urged his fellow farmers to work with the water board and organize politically, he finished by turning to the reps who led the meeting and shouted: “Thank you for coming. But we’re afraid of you.”
Northern Californians are familiar with the pat narrative: Back-to-the-land hippies of the Seventies became soured by greed and then cashed in their old values to exploit the North Coast’s pristine wilderness for a fast buck. That’s an easy story to tell, and it’s repeated often, but like most easy stories, it’s incomplete.
In truth, the drug war and pot prohibition in California have given rise to a massive, totally unregulated industry that set up shop in a fragile environment that had already been devastated by a century of logging and clear-cutting. Logging, it turns out, also birthed an ideal set-up for illicit pot farms. The logging industry had partially tamed the remote, rugged landscape by building roads and clearing flat areas that turned out to be perfect for homes. Plus, logging made the land cheap. By the latter part of the 20th century, many property owners in the region were eager to offload land that would not produce timber again for several decades. Hippies grabbed a slice of the homesteading dream, but on land that already had severe environmental problems.
During the past one hundred-plus years, the logging industry managed to cut down 95 percent of the area’s old-growth forests. Today, the vast majority of forest on the North Coast has been cut down at least once. And the second- and third-generation forests that replaced them are filled with young thirsty trees. This “thirsty forests” problem means that less water actually makes it into the creeks and streams than before, because the water is sucked up and evaporated by young densely packed trees.
Logging also caused massive erosion, filling countless streams with dirt. The alterations to the land now inhibit water from percolating into the ground, as it once did, and instead, it rushes out to sea. With less water soaking into the earth, creeks run dry in summer, helping kill off fish migrations.
The Compassionate Care Act of 1996 — Proposition 215 — further boosted the North Coast pot-industry and added to the region’s environmental degradation. For nineteen years, the state has failed to create any regulatory framework for marijuana production, leaving growers, even ones who strictly produce for medical cannabis dispensaries, open to raids. The recession was another driver for the industry, as people scrambled for extra revenue and parts of the state that hadn’t been traditional production centers entered the weed economy. And the near legalization of pot in 2010 created yet another little boom in production, with many growers convinced that that would be their last year to profit from black-market prices.
All this growth has put California in a unique situation as states across the West legalize: Rather than starting from scratch as Colorado did, California is in the process of trying to normalize and regulate an already massive and flourishing industry.Although accurate numbers are hard to come by, state and industry reps estimate that there are now 53,000 cannabis farms in California. According to the most conservative estimates, the state’s pot industry produces $5 billion just in farm sales — not including revenues from value-added products or retail. Others put wholesale production at more than $5 billion in Mendocino County alone. By some estimates, pot is the state’s largest cash crop. Surveys conducted by industry groups estimate that each farm employs an average of 4.5 full-time-equivalent workers, though many are seasonal. The population of Northern California counties swells by tens of thousands each fall with the arrival of “trimmigrants” who harvest the annual crop.
In many Northern California counties, marijuana is the largest employer, the biggest industry and export, a source of culture, and a way of life.
Over the years, state and local agencies have attempted to corral the industry and stamp out its culture with raids and crackdowns. Humboldt County Sheriff Michael Downey, who has been working in the area for decades, said that at one time, the raids appeared to be working, and that law enforcement officials “had [the industry] pretty much beat back in this county. The marijuana going out of the county was pretty low.”
But he added: “I’m not foolish enough to think that we would ever really win that war … [but] it wasn’t much of an industry back then. But today? To send [sheriff’s deputies] out now is like, really? What are we really accomplishing now? We could do this every day and never make a huge impact.”
Still, the raids and prohibition have continued and have not only made the environmental issues in the region harder to solve, but also have made them worse. For growers, if you have a decent chance of being raided in the future, it makes sense to score as much profit as quickly as you can. And if sticking around for the long run means probably getting busted, then spending time on environmental cleanup looks like a dumb idea. Moreover, if your money is illegal and you can’t put it in a bank, or invest directly in the local community without laundering it, then why not buy another lot with cash, build some more greenhouses, and expand your enterprise?
These perverse incentives have, in turn, resulted in an explosion of pesticide use, especially by growers who trespass on private or public land to cultivate black-market weed; more illegal water diversions from creeks and streams to irrigate pot grows; and more erosion caused by hillside farming and road-grading.
The North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board (one of nine such boards statewide) regulates and monitors a host of water-related issues, from the quality of municipal drinking water to the quality of sewage plant discharge, and importantly for the North Coast, the quality of the water flowing in streams and rivers. For years, however, the board had been underfunded, understaffed, and unable to contend with problems caused by the proliferation of environmentally damaging pot grows.
But last year’s state budget set aside $3.3 million for the regional board, the state water board, and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to begin tackling the problem. The North Coast board has hired several new people, including the two reps who attended the Grange Hall meeting in Laytonville. And board officials have been hammering out their main regulatory tool: the “waiver of discharge,” a document that will establish a new set of industry specific rules.
The new regs include a tiered system of compliance, with spot-checks and substantial fines in cases of non-compliance, but also a grace period and a path for existing farms to gradually come into compliance. The board will inspect farms and rank them on the basis of potential or existing environmental harm. Farmers have to pay a fee to enroll in the program, and the amount they pay is dependent on the danger and severity of the operation. Growers also must promise to make certain improvements to their land.
The new system also includes a role for third-party inspections, and a cottage industry has already sprung up here, with hundreds of growers hiring watershed consultants to help them work through the bureaucracy and science of environmental compliance.
At the Laytonville meeting, several growers asked why they were being held to a higher standard than other forms of agriculture, especially vineyards. Water board officials have responded by saying that a similar plan is being developed for the wine industry, and that the regulations for pot farmers were indicative of a new way of attempting to regulate several industries situated in delicate environments.
“We should not be more onerous than we are to the grape growers,” said John Corbett, chair of the North Coast board. “There’s two parts to equity: one, the growers comply with the water quality laws. The second part is those laws are the same for them as for other people.”
And overall, at least from politically organized groups of marijuana farmers, such as the Emerald Growers Association (EGA), and smaller county groups, including California Cannabis Voice Humboldt (CCVH) and Mendocino Cannabis Policy Council, support for the water board’s program has been positive. “The water board staff are our preferred regulators because they don’t carry guns and badges,” explained O’Neill of the EGA.
But will any of this work? While many growers, especially those who have taken great care to safeguard the environment, are hopeful, some environmentalists are not so sure. Scott Greacen, executive director of the environmental group Friends of the Eel River, said he’s broadly supportive of the water board’s initiative, but it appears to be too little, too late.
He points out that many growers have not even enrolled in the water board’s existing programs. And while the board has found some enthusiastic adopters of its new program, the industry is huge and unwieldy. Plus, even if the board achieves higher enrollment over time, some fish species might go extinct in only two or three years, he said. So while a system made up of farms run by people like O’Neill might be sustainable, such a scenario doesn’t seem likely at this point. Greacen believes that environmental cleanup needs to happen faster and that the system needs to better distinguish between good farms and bad ones. “We need a really bright line,” he said. “We need to be able to tell law enforcement, ‘This is what’s okay, and anything bigger than that, go nail them.'”
Earlier this year, there was an indication that local and state agencies might join the water board’s cooperative approach. A task force of water board inspectors, Fish and Wildlife game wardens, local law enforcement, and other functionaries collaborated on organized inspections in the watershed of Sproul Creek in southern Humboldt County. The inspections uncovered a variety of violations, and water board officials dispatched letters demanding enrollment in the board’s new program and compliance.
Then on July 20, at a community theater in Garberville, the various government agencies held a forum where, in good patriotic American style, the public came to yell at the government. There had been some major problems with the Sproul inspections, claims of uninformed staff, sloppy reporting, and rights violations. Perhaps the biggest issue was that the water board’s map software had marked local property lines wrong, sometimes a third of a mile off from the real property line.
On the other hand, as the representatives of the various agencies pointed out, this was a starting point. No one expected to go from no regulations to a thorough regulatory framework without growing pains.
Lieutenant Game Warden DeWayne Little fielded questions on behalf of Fish and Wildlife. He’d been on the inspection, and has been working in the area to protect streams and fish for decades. He pointed out that inspectors did not cut down any pot plants, even though there were reports of grows with several thousand plants. This, in itself, was somewhat remarkable, given that game wardens are sworn law enforcement officers and that Humboldt County sheriff’s officials accompanied the inspection group.
Little called the Sproul inspections the collaborative project’s “maiden voyage,” and at one point, praised the participants at the meeting. “I understand that a lot of you feel victimized by this process. … Each one of us is a private citizen outside of our professional lives — I get it.” But he added that Sproul was targeted for environmental reasons, and because it was one of the watersheds likely to get grower buy-in. He said that people who show up to public forums are not the problem; it’s the people who don’t. “With that in mind,” he said, “look at yourself as a solution, not the victims of the situation.”
Yet despite Little’s overtures to the growers assembled in Garberville, Fish and Wildlife is not prepared to give up on the raids with law enforcement and fully adopt the water board’s new program. Kason Grady, an engineer with the regional water board, explained: “They (Fish and Wildlife] have their own jurisdiction, and they have to proceed doing their eradication efforts according to their own priority. But our agency is taking a different tack, and we’re taking a tack that’s consistent with how we regulate other industries in our region — that is, a permit approach, we don’t do eradication, we don’t use those tools with any of the other industries that we deal with.”
Island Mountain is a remote territory where the three counties of the Emerald Triangle meet. It’s a place where law enforcement is rarely seen, and the growers have gone big. As the locals say, “they’re blowing it up” — with substantial environmental consequences.
During the June 22 raid, sheriff’s deputies cut down about 85,000 plants, and Fish and Wildlife officials charged 97 environmental crimes. But only a couple of arrests were made.
Authorities found unpermitted diversions from creeks, awful grading practices that quickly erode the land into streams, poorly constructed roads and creek crossings that destroy fish habitat, dangerous pesticide use, and tons of trash.
Scott Bauer, an environmental scientist for Fish and Wildlife, had camped out for the week, going to grows from dawn to dusk. In the last few years, he’s been on a one-man PR campaign in the fight against environmentally damaging dope. Though he tends toward technical descriptions of problems, you can hear the frustration in his voice, and that he cares deeply about the environment. “It’s a pretty sad state of affairs,” he said. “You’re out there and you’re trying to protect fish and protect wildlife and you see these things — and I hate to say it but I feel like you go through those kind of stages where you’re distraught and you’re upset about it to the point where you kind of get desensitized to it. … It’s really hard to do it when you do care — because, how much can this keep occurring? And what are we going to do about it collectively?”
For law enforcement, there are strong incentives to ignore the water board’s call for cooperation and to just keep raiding. Asset forfeiture laws allow police to seize large amounts of money and assets in pot busts. In 2014, Mendocino County seized $5.2 million in assets, including $3.9 million in cash.The Mendocino District Attorney’s Office takes things even further with its “restitution” program, which co-opts a law intended to pay for meth lab clean-ups to extract more money from growers. Basically, the DA approaches busted growers with a deal: Give us some cash for each pound confiscated and you get no jail time. The amount is negotiable. Officially, it’s $50 per plant and $500 per pound, but it often ends up in the tens of thousands of dollars. The funds then get divided up between the DA and the arresting agency, creating a revenue stream with little democratic oversight. Restitution money accounted for more than 10 percent of the 2014–2015 budget for the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office.
Bauer had told me that I could tag along during a visit to Island Mountain, but after he sent me the message, he went out of cellphone range. After a couple days, I decided to drive out to find him. I had some vague tips about where he might be, but mostly just figured I’d ask someone where all the cops were. I stopped in a general store where the shopkeeper explained that the store had been empty the last few days because everyone had scattered with the raids. This is the pattern each summer: The police convoy hits the road, someone spots it, and within minutes, word courses through the community. In the general store, various people lamented the scale of grows, the brazenness of it, the greed, and, of course, the damage to the environment. Yet along with snacks and health food, the store sells soil stacked on whole pallets in front. People denounce pot industry greed all day long, but the nurseries, hardware stores, car dealerships, and real estate agents never say “no” to the money produced by the green. As I walked out, the store manager bemoaned the newcomers with their giant grows, right before pointing a young man to the pallet of soil.
To the layperson, the environmental problems caused by bad growing practices can be subtle —innocuous storage ponds or culverts. But to Bauer, they represent impending catastrophes.
“The fuse is lit, and come a big El Niño, these things are going to unravel and end up in the Eel River. And that’s my best explanation … ticking time bombs across the landscape,” he said. “People abandon them and they become a mess and somebody’s got to pay for them, that’s going to need to happen, because some of these sites probably can’t wait two or three or four years to be cleaned up.”
However, after police raids, after the plants have been cut down and arrests made, these sites are typically left orphaned, with no solution in sight. And so they, too, remain environmental time bombs across the landscape.
After many miles of paved, then gravel, then dirt road, I came to a locked gate. I parked to figure out my next move, when who should drive up from the other side of the gate but a convoy of Mendocino sheriff’s deputies. They did a good job of pretending I was invisible before shooing me away. I didn’t have a key to get through the gate, and it was miles farther down the road to where the action was, so I headed home.
It’s notable that all of these skirmishes between the cops and the growers happen far from cities and towns, far from cameras and any kind of accountability. What information people do get here consists mostly of rumors spread by excitable growers and the official accounts of law-enforcement departments that have huge reputational and budgetary incentives to juke the stats.
The political representatives for the growers made it widely known that raids — a business-as-usual approach — would have a chilling effect on the efforts by activists, environmentalists, and water board reps to enroll growers in the new program. In a missive sent out to the EGA mailing list, Hezekiah Allen, director of the organization, summed up the feelings of many in the community. “Today they say they are looking for ‘environmental impacts,’ and ‘water theft.’ But these new words ring hollow. Because this is the same type of activity that traumatized me and the children of our community at an early age. … The environmental impacts are very real and we need to address them. But this is the same war that they have been fighting for decades.”
And then there was the water tank. During the raids, a grower who had been working to get into compliance with state regulations claimed that his 50,000 gallon water tank had been drained by law enforcement. The man was a client of hydrological engineer Brad Job, and Job, an employee of Pacific Watershed Associates, an environmental consulting firm, repeated his client’s allegation on a local radio station. The idea that law enforcement was going around draining water tanks in a drought quickly became a big part of the local narrative about the June raids.
Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman denied it, as did Humboldt Sheriff Downey. Downey cited the fire risk in the area as a reason for not draining the tanks. But on other occasions, I’ve seen Mendocino County law enforcement break and destroy water infrastructure. And Sheriff Allman’s repeated exhortations that the owner of the tank should come forward to file an official complaint rang hollow given that doing so would likely mean a trip to jail.
Near the end of the Grange Hall meeting in Laytonville, Will (he declined to give his last name), baby-faced and impassioned, stood up. “Three years ago our family purchased a large parcel. … The previous tenants had done a lot of damage to the land,” he said. “They had dumped trash in the ponds they had left jugs of used motor oil in the woods, done no maintenance of the forest. … And thanks to the income of cannabis in the last three years our land is almost out of ecological debt.”
People like Will, 23, who has a degree in agroecology, might represent the best hope for cannabis to keep being grown in this area. Farmers like him and O’Neill have a deep respect for the environment and are pushing for a transition to craft cannabis, with connoisseur branding. And a key component of that brand will be an organic, environmentally sound, water board-compliant certification.
This summer, I visited Will’s farm and admired his well-tended garden: 25 healthy plants, which, according to him, were only using one and a quarter gallons of water in the hot days of late June. Will runs the farm with his dad, Kevin, adhering to many best practices. For most of his life, Kevin was a yacht captain and a ship builder and he takes a philosophical view of the land. “A part of that is having been a guy who built boats,” Kevin explained. “I always approach life as a voyage. And the idea being this is the new ship, and when I’m done skippering, it’ll be someone else’s.”
And so Will pours his education and youthful energy back into the soil. When he was showing me around, he rambled on about botany while excitedly checking the pH of his soil. The money produced by the farm has helped pay for the removal of old rusted cars, and he and his father have put in big rain catchment tanks with solar powered pumps and started to remove huge amounts of trash. It’s a beautiful and forward-thinking place, a model, but by no means the norm.
And even though Will and Kevin have their documents in order and are doing their best to clean and protect the land, when rumors spread on the morning that sheriffs were driving out to Island Mountain, it sent a chill through them. Even with all their effort and work, they still feared that a capricious law enforcement officer could take it all away.