Environmentalists have grumbled for some time about the lack of enforcement against cannabis farms that have made no attempt to become legal. (See “New Cannabis Ordinance: Good on Paper!” EcoNews, Oct./Nov. 2017.) However, Humboldt County has recently begun to take action. Starting in October, the county began issuing nuisance abatement orders for unpermitted properties that they discern are growing cannabis. The first round of letters were targeted at properties in the Mattole and near Willow Creek—areas chosen because they contain a large number of unpermitted farms.
The county typically put landowners on notice of three violations: grading without permits, un-permitted structures, and violation of the Commercial Medical Marijuana Land Use Ordinance (CMMLUO). After issuing the letter, the recipient has 10 days to correct the nuisance, after which the county can begin issuing abatement orders carrying fines of up to $10,000 per day per violation. Individuals are directed to take the necessary corrective actions. For violations of the CMMLUO, the county directs that individuals need to “[c]ease commercial medical marijuana cultivation operations and remove all supporting infrastructure” and “[a]pply for and obtain permits to develop a restoration plan and implement restoration plan.” After 90 days, if the landowner has taken no corrective action, the county can move to seize and sell the property.
Planning Director John Ford said that the letters were intended to make a point to growers: get in the system or the county will take action against you. Ford has likewise emphasized that the county isn’t interested in punitively punishing growers, but rather seeks to stop illegal activity and funnel willing growers into the permitted system.
Ford states the county is issuing the letters based on their examination of aerial imagery. If the county believes it has proof of a cannabis operation, the county then determines if the property has a permit or a permit application under the CMMLUO. If the operation is unpermitted or is not in the process of being permitted, a nuisance abatement letter is issued to the address of the owner by mail and by posting the letter on the gate of the property. According to sources familiar with the program, the county also has access to nighttime imagery to look specifically for light pollution.
It is still too early to see what effect, if any, these letters will present. The county states that early response to the letters has been good—individuals who have received letters have contacted the county and are in the process of taking corrective action. While the first round of letters sent a shockwave through the cannabis community, the county still has somewhere between 4,000-12,000 unpermitted grows. Rumor has it that some growers are taking action to evade detection, including constructing underground bunkers to hide their operations from aerial enforcement. Black market grow operations—those that have refused to participate in any of the nascent attempts at regulation—contribute significantly to environmental damages. An ordinance alone will not solve the problem. Sufficient enforcement against those who violate the law is necessary.
EPIC, the NEC, and others question whether the county should permit additional new cannabis farms when it is already struggling to enforce existing regulation.
Meanwhile, a comprehensive set of temporary regulations for recreational cannabis was released by the State of California on November 16. Notably, it did not include an upper limit on the size of cannabis farms. However, just days before, the state Department of Food and Agriculture had issued an environmental impact report that proposed a 1-acre cap on cannabis farms and nurseries. It is unclear why the cap was not included in the final guidelines.
The regulations will enable the state to begin issuing temporary licenses for cannabis businesses in January, when recreational sales become legal. Full text of the regulations can be found at www.calcannabis.cdfa.ca.gov.