An all-day public hearing on a new law to ban or regulate commercial cannabis in Calaveras County turned raucous, testy and a bit nasty near the end of eight hours Tuesday in San Andreas, as people on both sides of the divisive issue had their say.
The Board of Supervisors took no action Tuesday. They closed public comment on the first of two measures before them at 5 p.m. and they’ll reconvene at 9 a.m. today to deliberate before voting on an issue that has bedeviled Calaveras County since the chaotic aftermath of the Butte Fire two years ago.
A guitar-playing supporter of regulating commercial cannabis named Holly Johnston sang her point of view to the board near the end of the public hearing, and Supervisors Dennis Mills and Clyde Clapp walked out and returned when she was done.
This drew criticism from other people opposing a ban, and from people supporting a ban who said musical testimony in a public hearing disrespected the proceedings.
Bill McManus, a ban supporter who helped author the ballot initiative Measure B that a judge ordered removed from ballots in March, said he’d heard “a lot of fairy tales. Dignity is not brought to this hearing by karaoke. That’s a fairy tale. Another fairy tale is pot is medicine. Fairy tales are being told.”
At the end of public comments Board Chair Michael Oliveira had county counsel read Rule 27, which basically states that supervisors who miss testimony can vote on the issue only if they review testimony they missed.
Supervisor Jack Garamendi told the gathering of more than 75 people, including overflow seating next door, “You, our constituents, are right to petition your government. There’s no prohibition on singing, or poetry or art. It’s our job to listen. We can do better.”
Mills said someone wrote a note to let Johnston sing, and Clapp chimed in, “Sign the recall,” referring to a recent notice of intent to circulate a petition to recall Garamendi undersigned by 22 people who reside in his district, which includes Mokelumne Hill, Sheep Ranch, Mountain Ranch, Calaveritas, Wilseyville, West Point, Paloma, Glencoe and Rail Road Flat.
The contentious conclusion to the day did little to clarify how the Board of Supervisors will deal with their next hurdle, which is crafting and approving a new law banning or regulating commercial cannabis to replace the urgency ordinance regulating medical cannabis cultivation and commercial uses involving medical cannabis, adopted by the board in May 2016.
Beginning shortly after 9 a.m., the board heard from county planning staff, consultants on an environmental impact report tied to the new law, the sheriff and the auditor-controller, as well as more than 50 speakers during public hearing testimony.
Costs of enforcing cannabis laws are already pushing local law enforcement budget limits.
Sheriff Rick Di Basilio told the board that from Jan. 1 through Oct. 13 deputies with the Marijuana Enforcement Team have seized 11,225 pounds of processed marijuana, 52,589 plants, 6.97 pounds of cannabis concentrate, 24 guns, $118,964 in cash, and made 50 arrests at 53 locations.
To enforce existing law in Calaveras County, Di Basilio said, his department’s spent $520,000 on salaries for enforcement and eradications, and just to catch up he needs five or six more positions, at cost of $600,000 more a year.
“Whether you ban it or regulate it, illegal activity is going to continue in this county,” Di Basilio said. “If we end up with a ban we’re going to see more grows in the hills. The illegal growers are not going to go away. . . . Now they’re registering personal grows, going indoors. It takes time and money to deal with those. Ban or regulation, we need an investigative team to go after grows that are illegal.”
Di Basilio said indoor grows have become so prevalent he recently noticed a vacant home was being used to cultivate marijuana next door to his place. He called a property manager and soon his wife called to tell him the indoor grower was clearing out.
Calaveras County has been strapped for adequate funding for years, said Rebecca Callen, county auditor-controller.
“Recovery from the recession went up in flames,” Callen told the board, referring to the deadly, destructive 2015 Butte Fire. “Every department has been cut to the bone. The fire, the tree mortality, then winter storms, we’ve been scraping by. We really did balance this budget on the backs of Measure C money.”
Anna Stepp, 52, of Valley Springs, owner of Frog Farm and a registered grower with a permit pending, spoke up for regulating commercial cannabis. She said she is a disabled Air Force veteran, 18 years enlisted and eight years an officer.
George Fry, a land use planner for a decade in Calaveras County, said he is satisfied with the environmental impact report for a new law.
“The urgency ordinance let the cat out of the bag,” Fry said. “I hope this board has the spine to pass a very rigid ordinance.”
Bob Bowerman, executive director of Calaveras County NORML, told the board the urgency ordinance was not a test.
“No matter what you call it, if you put a ban in place you’re going to hurt a lot of people,” Bowerman said. “The fact is cannabis is legal. Get over it. Work with it.”
Trent Fiorino, who sat and stood with ban supporters, countered, “Cannabis is still illegal nationally. It’s like organized crime. We don’t need cannabis in this county. We can raise the sales tax instead.”
Mike Falvey, 70, a resident of Mountain Ranch for more than 40 years, said he’s so fed up with the cannabis debates he’s sold his place and moved to Mokelumne Hill.
“Escrow closes Friday,” Falvey said. “The bottom line is I can see the handwriting on the wall. And I don’t see this ending soon. The Mountain Ranch I’ve known 40 years is dead. I don’t want to deal with the battles, the illegal grows. The atmosphere socially is toxic. I’m in favor of heavy regulation, taxation and enforcement. Always opposed a ban outright.”
Near the end of testimony in the public hearing, Falvey stood up and told the board they’d heard from more than 35 speakers supporting regulation and less than 15 in favor of a ban.
“And that’s not counting what the sheriff and the auditor said,” Falvey told the board. “They basically endorse regulation. 37-14 is a pretty strong number. Need I say more?”
Several more ban supporters stood to address the board before public comments were closed. Which direction the Calaveras County Board of Supervisors will take on a new law banning or regulating commercial cannabis cultivation remains to be seen.