Update: The county issued a statement just after 5pm on Friday, June 2; you can read our article and the statement in full here.
MENDOCINO Co., 6/02/17 — The sheriff’s department has been eradicating cannabis crops this week, including at least one farm that was enrolled in last year’s revised medical cannabis program — leading to questions from cultivators and attorneys and county staff meetings. County CEO Carmel Angelo stated that an official statement will be issued today to clarify the new procedures for the county’s new cultivation permit program, including the “procedure that people use to pay fees and submit applications.” The county is also establishing a new hotline number as a one-stop shop for all questions cannabis.
The transition between the county’s previous medical cultivation program, run by the sheriff’s department, and the new permit program administered by the ag department has led to some confusion about how cultivators should navigate the road to full compliance. While a statement isn’t expected until later today, sources indicate that the county will likely allow cultivators to use proof of business registration and receipt for payment of non-refundable application fees as a means to demonstrate intent to apply for a full county license, with a limited window to then submit the full application. (More details below)
On Tuesday, the County of Mendocino Marijuana Eradication Team (COMMET), a division of the sheriff’s department, conducted a series of raids. The scope of the raids is unclear, but it is known that a farm on Black Bart Trail in Redwood Valley that had enrolled last year in the revised 9.31 medical cultivation program had hundreds of plants eradicated. It is reported that those farmers had begun filling out a county cultivation permit application but had not yet submitted them. The Mendocino County Sheriffs Office (MCSO) Public Information Officer Captain Greg Van Patten confirmed that Sheriff Tom Allman ordered the eradication of 300 to 500 plants at that property, after deputies found the farm to have “no documentation whatsoever” of enrollment in the county Ag Department’s new cultivation licenses program. At least four people were cited and one warrant executed (as the basis of the raid), according to attorney Hannah Nelson.
She added that posted at the garden was paperwork from last year’s medical cannabis program, bearing her phone number as an attorney. She went on to say that before their plants were cut down, the cultivators asked that she be contacted.
Notably, Nelson stated that she had worked out an understanding with Undersheriff Randy Johnson, sometime before the raids occurred, but that this understanding had not been communicated to the COMMET team, and that they failed to contact her upon arriving at the farm. Johnson was out of the area when the raids occurred.
Sometime after the raids Nelson contacted Sheriff Tom Allman and discussed possible resolutions. She stated that he was very helpful in working with her and county staff to identify a pragmatic solution for cultivators intending to apply, but who have not yet submitted their applications. According to Nelson, Allman suggested that one possible stopgap solution would be to allow cultivators to show a receipt for their application fees (which are non-refundable), on the condition that they turn in said application in a specified time-frame.
Cultivation enforcement activity may have also taken place at other locations. No information is currently available as to why the properties raided were selected for enforcement actions. By Tuesday afternoon news of the eradications had reached Nelson, who then contacted Sheriff Tom Allman and county staff on behalf of cultivators who have yet to submit their full cultivation permit applications but intend to apply.
Many cultivators seeking to become compliant have found themselves struggling through uncharted territory with the multiple agencies involved in regulating cannabis cultivation, each with a different permitting deadline. Nelson said she has been advising clients to carefully fill out county permit applications, in part to ensure cultivators are prepared for the many different agencies involved in the proposed statewide licensing system.
As rumors concerning the raids spread, cultivators showed up at county offices Wednesday seeking answers about the application process — the scene was described by one applicant as hectic. County staff met Thursday June 1 to clarify aspects of the program with the goal of facilitating the application process with a statement expected to be released Friday June 2. County CEO Carmel Angelo emphasized there would be no changes to policy or regulations set forth in the county’s ordinance.
The Ag Department began accepting applications for the new medical cultivation permitting program on May 4, and will continue to do so until December 31, 2017, so many farmers thought they had more time. Farmers who enrolled in last year’s medical cultivation program had been given assurances of priority processing under the new cultivation permitting program. The new ordinance does give cultivators some protection from nuisance and abatement actions if they have turned in applications but have not yet received full approval. However, many cultivators are concerned that if they take time filling out the application during this growing season they will be exposed to enforcement. Cultivations are also required to pass a background check in order to get both local and state licenses.
Regarding the county’s forthcoming statement, CEO Angelo said that no policies or requirements for the cultivation permits will change, as these are determined by the recently passed county cultivation ordinance. However, Angelo noted the statement will clarify aspects of procedure and the program to address concerns, and clarify the process for cultivators who are interested in submitting applications but may not have yet done so.
Angelo pointed out that county staff “recognize that the application can take more time to fill out, and we appreciate the fact that our applicants are ready and willing to pay.” She added that “We are good situation where applicants want to come in and be part of the program,” and that the county wants to support the cultivation program, especially considering many will be consulting attorneys and other compliance specialists while filling out their permit applications, which may cause delays in submissions.
Currently, cultivators seeking a county permit submit an application that includes a number of required documents to the Ag Department, including proof of prior cultivation, a site map, and cultivation and operations plans, then pay a non-refundable fee and file a business registration with the Tax-Assessor office. The statement made today is expected to clarify that cultivators can pay the fees prior to submitting an application, which are about $1500 before the permit is granted. Angelo noted that the county has no desire for people to pay the fee while running a risk of not being approved; she would rather that people only pay the fee if approval is guaranteed.
Treasurer-Tax Collector Shari Schapmire stated that to assist with the transition, cultivators who pay their application fees and fill out a business license will be able to amend their business tax and registration forms without penalty, if, when submitting their complete permit application they register with the ag department under a different name. This allowance will apply strictly to business tax registration forms.
As of last week the department had received around 300 applications, and initial site visits are planned for next week, explained interim Ag Department Commissioner Diane Curry. Captain Van Patten said that most violations will now be sent to the code enforcement department for assessment, but that the MCSO will still act in cases of criminal activity or safety concerns.
Van Patten said on Wednesday that if cultivators who are “able to produce information that shows that they’re part of the program, that’s all taken into consideration.” He said that immediate eradication would not occur, “If they are trying to comply with whatever the permitting requirements are,” and that law enforcement would check with the Ag Department prior to eradicating crops.
Nelson said that she had spoken to Undersheriff Johnson prior to the raids, seeking assurance that farmers could be provided with a mechanism to demonstrate that they intended to apply for county permits, such as a receipt for non-refundable application fees. She also expressed frustration, noting that while she understood that COMMET was doing its job, she was disappointed with what had occurred during the raid on the previously permitted farm — one which claimed to have to intended to apply this year. She expressed particular concern with the fact that the eradication had occurred without contacting her, their attorney, given that her number was posted at the site on last year’s posted paperwork. “Everybody has to respond very rapidly to a changing circumstance,” she said, “but there needs to be a more coordinated effort of working out the logistics, so people trying to do the right thing can be safe.”
She emphasized her appreciation of Sheriff Allman, Undersheriff Randy Johnson, and all county staff in responding rapidly after the raids to craft “a reasonable policy that will work for law enforcement and will work for cultivators that are applying.” Sheriff Allman could not be reached for comment.
Undersheriff Randy Johnson, who had run last year’s permitting program, was reached by email on Wednesday. “I don't have any details of what COMMENT has done in the last couple of days, but I am sure they have been working,” wrote Johnson. “This new ordinance is less than a month old, we are continually having meetings to work out the details and moving forward with this new Process.[sic]” He added that “As a group we are still trying to work out the details of how people will show involvement/application to the AG[sic] cannabis program.”
Editor's note: This article has been corrected to state that "a warrant was executed (as the basis of the raid)." It previously said that "a warrant had been issued."
This article has also been updated to include new information and clarification.