Calaveras County commercial cannabis growers have another month before growing becomes illegal but already many farmers have moved on, leaving unplanted gardens, unoccupied homes and, ultimately, a $13 million hole in county tax coffers.

The ordinance to ban commercial cannabis cultivation in Calaveras County, passed 3-2 by the Board of Supervisors on Jan. 10, took effect March 9 and gave growers 90 days to come into compliance.

Trevor Wittke, a registered grower and executive director of the Calaveras Cannabis Alliance, said Wednesday that last year 507 legally registered pot farms received tax bills totalling $13 million.

He said many of those hundreds of farmers and their employees have moved out, although he didn’t have an exact number. But if the county allowed legal registration again, Wittke estimated county staff could again expect to get at least 500 applicants under a regulatory framework.

No one, including elected officials, is talking openly about revisiting the ban, but many growers and supporters hope coming elections, including this June, will bring turnover to the board and enough supervisor votes to change the law.

The Calaveras Cannabis Legal Defense Fund and Wittke are suing Calaveras County in Calaveras Superior Court, alleging open-meeting law violations. They allege members of the Board of Supervisors discussed hiring a private company to complete a report on environmental problems associated with cannabis cultivation, distributed in October by Dennis Mills, the District 4 supervisor. They consider this misuse of public resources.

In 2017 it was legal for approved and pending registrants with Calaveras County for cannabis farms to commercially cultivate anywhere from 201 square feet to 22,000 square in commercial cannabis canopy, Wittke said. On that land, a registered grower could plant anywhere from dozens of plants to 10,000.

Recent planting seasons in Calaveras County started as early as February, with growth through summer and harvest normally in October and November.

A 2017 University of the Pacific study of economic impacts of cannabis cultivation in Calaveras County for 2016 showed $339.2 million in total economic output, 3,404 total people employed, and $172.2 million in total labor income. Comparable dollar estimates and statistics for 2017 in Calaveras County were not available.

No pot taxes

Despite losing tax revenue, the county must still pay for enforcing the ban, cracking down on illegal growers, and eradicating illegal outdoor and indoor grows.

That’s proving to be a challenge, county building, code enforcement and law enforcement staff told the elected Board of Supervisors at an April 24 meeting.

Sheriff Rick DiBasilio told the board in late April that regulation of personal and caregiver grows will continue, because they are still legal in Calaveras County under state law.

“The regulatory program is going to continue,” DiBasilio said. “You have a ban in place, yes. But there’s still the regulation of personal grows and caregiver grows that need to be monitored.

“When we start investigating personal, caregiver grows, which is supposed to be six plants only, and we come to find they’re growing an entire household, that kind of changes things,” DiBasilio said.

Illegal growing continues

It’s likely that illegal cannabis cultivation is going to continue, DiBasilio said, citing the increase in indoor cultivation and a recent investigation that resulted in federal Department of Justice staff seizing nine homes in Calaveras County.

DiBasilio showed several aerial photos of illegal grows in Calaveras County, including some hilltop grows with illegal grading. He listed what he described as environmental crimes found at illegal grows and he showed photos to illustrate.

“They’re digging holes, burying garbage, making illegal water diversions, making dams out of stream beds, raw sewage, illegal grading,” DiBasilio said. “These are some pretty big grows up on hilltops. As you can see by the burned trees around them, we know what area these are in, up around the Butte area.”

DiBasilio said “transnational organized crime” and “Chinese nationals” were responsible for some of the recent illegal indoor grows discovered and eradicated in Calaveras County.

The sheriff also said some registered and non-registered growers in Calaveras County have out-of-state addresses that span the globe, from Iceland and continental Europe to Alaska, Hawaii and Asia.

‘Nowhere near Calaveras County’

DiBasilio used a global map to show where some out-of-staters allegedly growing marijuana in Calaveras County come from.

“You can see the reaching here, you’ve got Iceland, up in Alaska, the Hawaiian Islands, obviously throughout the United States, down into Mexico, and clean over into Europe,” DiBasilio said.

The sheriff pointed at a spot in Central Asia and said, “I’m not exactly sure where this one way over on the right is, but it’s nowhere near the United States, or Calaveras County.”

DiBasilio’s input was part of a presentation by several county departments on illegal cannabis grow eradication and abatement activities in 2017, and the proposed enforcement program and structure for 2018-19.

Hoping to do more with less

Sabrina Cable, a newly promoted senior code enforcement officer with Calaveras County, said she and other staff handled 228 unregistered grower citations last year with 5.25 full-time staff. This year, the goal is 300 citations but there will only be two full-time staff.

Tim Lutz, county administrator questioned how they could do more with less.

“We’ve found a lot of growers are moving indoors,” Cable said. “It will be a lot of work but I think it’s attainable.”

The eradication and enforcement update followed a presentation on county roads and lack of funding to repair roads damaged and still unrepaired from the devastating 2015 Butte Fire, as well as near-record runoff and erosion damage incurred during 2016-17 winter storms.

When the board split on the ban vote in January, Dennis Mills, District 4, Clyde Clapp, District 5, and Gary Tofanelli, District 1, voted for the ban. Jack Garamendi, District 2, and Mike Oliveira, District 3, opposed it.

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.com or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.

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