Marijuana farms are tucked away on isolated mountainsides in Calaveras County, out in the open next to roadways, and up and down multiple watersheds in this hardscrabble county born in the Gold Rush era.
Some people say Calaveras County has the best climate for growing marijuana, second only to the South American Andes.
More than 700 registered pot farms made marijuana growing the largest industry in the county last year, according to one study, with estimates of an annual economic impact of $339.2 million, 3,404 jobs and income to workers of $172.2 million.
But at the same time, an equal number of illegal farms operate in the shadows. Law enforcement officials say they are the source of an increase in crime and violence, such as the shooting deaths of three men in October 2015 in the West Point area .
Some residents say they’ve been threatened by growers, and their peaceful enjoyment of their homes has been ruined by the strong, skunk-like smell of maturing reefer during the June to December grow season.
The Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office can’t say how much crime has increased. They don’t track crime that way, but nonetheless they believe it has.
They point as proof to a recent week when a man was tied up in his home and $70,000 in cash and 150 pounds of processed pot were stolen, a man stabbed in San Andreas’ Turner Park in a pot deal, 940 pounds of pot seized at an illegal grow and a hazardous waste dump of butane canisters used to extract THC oil from plants found near Calaveras High School.
Since the Board of Supervisors passed a temporary ordinance regulating pot growing a year ago, the topic has become ever present, a fierce and continual debate between those who want to see cannabis eradicated and those who want to legalize and regulate.
They agree on one thing: the fabric of life in this rural county of 45,000 people has changed.
In the past 20 months Calaveras County residents have come through the most destructive blaze in its 166-year history to become ground zero for testing the Golden State’s legal limits on regulated marijuana growers.
The September 2015 Butte Fire killed two residents, destroyed 921 structures, including 549 homes and four commercial properties, and torched 110 square miles of watersheds. That land became perfect for marijuana cultivation.
When the urgency ordinance was adopted, the expectation was 200 to 300 growers would apply. The number topped out at 737.
“A year ago, people were flooding in on a daily basis with no regulations in place,” county planning staff said in January. “The climate was ripe for abuse of the system.”
Doug Joses, 74, is a rancher in the oldest part of Mountain Ranch. His family goes back to 1849 in Calaveras County, and his dad bought the land he works now in 1924. He raises sheep, goats and cows.
“The growers are here, and I think we’re going to have to live with them,” Joses said. “I haven’t had any bad issues with them other than the dogs chasing and killing livestock. Some guys, when they do harvest, they put pit bulls staked out, but either they get loose or they turn ’em loose.”
Joses said he’s lost 28 lambs in the past two months.
“They’re all dog kill,” Joses said.
He said some growers have been around 15 years or more.
“They weren’t as visible before the fire, but you can see it everywhere now. They’re growing over here,” he said, pointing, “and back here. It appears they’re going to grow again. A lot of activity, hauling dirt, hauling pipe.”
Joses said numerous local businesses have done well since marijuana growers have moved in en masse. He said his son works as a contractor for some of the growers, putting in building pads and driving water trucks, hauling water.
“I don’t want to make any waves with them,” Joses said. “I live here. I don’t want to badmouth them.”
Gerry Cartier, 90, has lived 50 years in Mountain Ranch. She lives out Whiskey Slide Road and she said fees and taxes coming from growers can be a boon to the county.
“I think it’s an opportunity for us to collect more money and fix these roads and take out all these trees,” Cartier said. “We need the money and taxes. This is a poor county.”
Cartier said she doesn’t understand why some people are opposed to marijuana cultivation.
“It’s legal in several states and they don’t have an issue with it.”
She said most growers she’s met are decent, courteous people.
Not too long ago she was sideswiped by a flatbed truck on Whiskey Slide.
“The driver’s side,” she said. “I couldn’t get out. Two young men stopped, they were growers, wearing hats that said ‘Kola Farms’ on it. They helped me get out of my car. They waited with me until CHP came. They were very nice.”
Mike Falvey, 68, and his wife Norah, 70, have lived in Mountain Ranch since April 1976. He said he spoke out against illegal growers, and somebody online threatened to kill him and his family.
“I know people on both sides of the issue, and I don’t like the whole thing overall,” Falvey said at his place. “I try to bust their chops, the growers, and now it’s the banners.”
He believes the quality has been severely hurt.
“The roads have been annihilated, cannabis has taken over the county’s focus. Three out of five on the board are pro-ban. I don’t want to see a ban, because it will be worse than it is now,” Falvey said.
Falvey said he knows of a faction of growers who are buying land anticipating there will be a ban, and they’re doubling down because there won’t be any enforcement.
“If there’s a ban, you’ll see the guys busted that are right next to the road,” Falvey said. “The sheriff will want to make a show. But it’s the guys off the road, the back 40s, who will kick up their production big-time.”
If the urgency ordinance remains in effect and a permanent ordinance allows the county to start collecting tax revenues, Falvey said, the vast majority of what’s collected will be spent on enforcement of marijuana regulations.
“It won’t get into the general fund,” Falvey said, expressing his opinion. “Only a limited amount will be spent on the roads. This is the elephant in the room in this county.”
County planning staff said earlier this year the Measure C cannabis tax passed by voters in November is a general tax and, as such, “this revenue can be directed to any use the board determines to be appropriate during its annual budget hearings.”
Trevor Wittke, 32, said he’s been growing marijuana on Deer Ridge in the North Fork Calaveras River watershed since 2005. He said there are 15 to 20 grows in the area, which he describes as Calaveras County’s epicenter of cannabis cultivation for medical uses.
Wittke said there was a time after the Butte Fire, between October 2015 and May 2016, when a lot of property changed hands. Hundreds of families were burned out, and many others whose homes survived wanted to move regardless. Marijuana growers who knew about Calaveras County and its climate came looking for cheap land.
“That was the Green Rush,” Wittke said, looking out over his greenhouse and hoop house frames, where he grows marijuana strains he sells to a company that creates award-winning concentrated oil for vapor pens.
“A lot of new grows got put in,” Wittke said. “Some of them are unregistered. Illegal.”
Wittke said he spent 60 hours a week the past couple of months fighting Measure B, the initiative to ban commercial cultivation of cannabis in Calaveras County that was struck from May 2 special election ballots by a visiting judge last month.
He said he wrote arguments, reviewed lawsuits, identified false statements in pro-ban literature, helped man phone banks, and did other outreach work including serving as a media contact.
Wittke has let his grow areas go to seed for off season, and right now they’re dense with vetch, barley, clover, thistle, poppies, lupin and yarro.
“We plant indoors in February and March,” Wittke said. “Move them outdoors in April and May.”
Wittke brought some juvenile plants in one-gallon grow bags outside. He displayed a quarter-pound to half-pound of finished marijuana, a strain called Calaveras Grape.
Wittke showed vials of seeds from a cross called the Nomad and said one vial containing 10 seeds could cost $100. Another vial containing 11 seeds of a strain called Daybreaker also cost $100. He said he’s not getting rich, but in good years can make a comfortable living.
“We’re never going to be millionaires,” he said.
The Butte Fire wiped out everything he had, he said, leaving him and his family at “destitution levels.”
Wittke said he understands how some residents feel about having marijuana growers for neighbors.
“For some people, there is no rebuilding in the face of all the pot growing going on,” Wittke said. “That’s too much for some. They want a return to normalcy, and they feel like cultivation is not a normal part of the community.”
An urgency ordinance in place since May 2016 remains the current law of the land. A recent special election to ban pot was thrown out by the courts, making the Board of Supervisors the last line of defense for pot opponents.
Three supervisors lost their seats in November — all three voted for the urgency ordinance. The new board has directed county staff to craft a permanent ordinance banning pot. Supervisors Gary Tofanelli, Clyde Clapp and Dennis Mills were in favor. Jack Garamendi and Michael Oliveira were opposed.
A draft ordinance was released Friday.
In all, the county collected $3.7 million in fees from growers who registered for commercial cultivation after the urgency ordinance was passed.
Rebecca Callen, auditor-controller for the county, said this week $1.69 million has been spent so far for additional staff in planning, code enforcement, environmental management, county counsel, and the sheriff’s office, as well as vehicles, equipment and aerial imaging.
As of April 17, there was a balance of $1,943,423.80 remaining, which was being held with other county assets in a pooled investment strategy, Callen said.
There are 25 positions funded with regulatory program revenues, including permanent and extra hire/temporary positions.
For the Sheriff’s Office, that breaks down to six deputies, two sheriff service technicians, and one sergeant, for a total cost of $754,459.
For Environmental Health, that’s two registered environmental health specialists and one environmental health technician, for a cost of $143,233.
For the Planning Department, regulatory fee revenues are paying for seven positions: three planners and four office technicians, for a cost of $247,090.
For the Building Department, that’s three code enforcement officer positions, for a cost of $230,455.
Regulatory fee revenues are also paying for an agricultural biologist for $67,993, an on-site waste environmental health technician for $64,145, and a limited-term deputy county counsel for $126,218.
Other expenditures from grower registration fees so far include $105,603 for aerial imaging, $109,931 for planning services and supplies, $106,352 for sheriff’s patrol services and supplies, and $346,845 for sheriff’s equipment.
Regulatory fee revenues can be spent only on administering, implementing and enforcing the cannabis cultivation registration process.
In late March, the Board of Supervisors approved mid-year adjustments to the sheriff's budget, with a transfer of $468,683 from the general fund reserve and $13,638 from the regulatory fee fund. A lion’s share of the total, $460,000, was designated for overtime. Most of the overtime funding, 81.5 percent, was for law enforcement, 2.17 percent was for dispatch, and 16.3 percent was for jail personnel.
The remaining $22,321 was approved to purchase $8,683 worth of ballistic vests and micro tactical gun sights, described as items required for the safety of patrol deputies. The remaining $13,638 from the regulatory fee fund was approved to refund the sheriff’s patrol fund for already-purchased Victory Tactical Gear, makers of hard body armor, active shooter kits, ballistic helmets, ballistic shields, plate carriers and soft body armor, as well as monoculars, all described as cannabis-related equipment.
A transfer was to be made from the regulatory fee fund to reimburse the sheriff’s fund for purchase of items that are directly related to and needed for the cannabis regulatory program, sheriff’s staff said in a report.
The county Planning Department, which is responsible for vetting applicants, received 737 commercial applications. As of April 7, 49 commercial cultivation registrations had been approved and 126 had been denied.
The process takes so long, Peter Maurer, county planning director said, because “These are complex applications that require review by several different departments. Many of them are not cut and dried.”
Further complicating the county’s situation is Measure C, a referendum passed last November that adds a special tax to commercial growers. Taxes for half the amount are due in June, which likely will be before supervisors can address the ban ordinance.
County officials believe this tax could bring in from $7 million to $11 million in a county that collected just over $60 million in taxes.
Caz Tomaszewski, president of Calaveras Cannabis Alliance, said he believes regulation is the only way to fix the myriad problems with commercial grows.
“Remember prohibition of alcohol back in the ‘20s and ‘30s. Crime spiked across the board, including violent crime, organized crime and alcohol-related crime,” he said.
Several county agencies, such as the Sheriff’s Office, Code Enforcement and Environmental Management, are in limbo right now because no one knows yet if the Board of Supervisors will approve a ban on commercial cultivation or enact regulation and stepped-up enforcement funded by growers’ tax dollars.
Whichever way it goes, some county staff are planning for an aggressive crackdown on illegal growers.
Back in February, Mike Renner with the county building department described for the Board of Supervisors an “expedited abatement system for cannabis-related activities.”
Ethan Turner, deputy county counsel, enthusiastically joined in praising the changes.
He said the new rules would speed up the process, helping the county eradicate so many marijuana grows it could be the largest crackdown in the nation.
“On paper we could issue an unbelievable number of abatement orders,” Turner said. “And I got all excited about it and told Rick (Sheriff Rick DiBasilio) we could engage in the largest eradication program in American history. He looked at me and said, ‘Whatever you’re smoking it must be pretty good stuff.’”