When the votes for sheriff are counted in Calaveras County three weeks from now, there will be a clear winner with more than 50 percent, or there will be two candidates left heading for a showdown in November.

Either way, the race for sheriff in this Gold Country county of 44,000 people could turn on the region’s most contentious issue, cannabis cultivation for commercial purposes.

Commercial pot in Calaveras County is now banned in the wake of more than a year of temporary legalization. The ongoing debate has pitted many conservative longtime residents and property owners, who cite increasing crime and eroding quality of life, against other longtime residents, property owners, pot farmers and newcomers, who argue regulation is the only way to create tax revenues for cracking down on illegal growers and the environmental damage they cause.

Each of the three candidates has pledged to enforce the law – the current ban or more regulation – and each has a position on how they see pot in Calaveras County’s future. Rick DiBasilio, the current appointed sheriff, along with challengers Pat Garrahan and Gary L. Stevens, have stated their positions at multiple debates and forums, and in responses to The Union Democrat.

Stevens says his position is and always has been to advocate for banning all commercial

marijuana activities in Calaveras County.

“The majority of residents do not want commercial marijuana here,” Stevens said Friday. “This has always been my position – prior to my decision to run for sheriff and throughout this campaign. I am the only one running for sheriff in Calaveras County that has supported the efforts to ban commercial marijuana.”

Garrahan says he has made no effort to hide that he thinks the way to control the cannabis industry in Calaveras County is through regulation.

“I personally favor strict regulation, over an outright ban, as the best approach to reaching the goal most people want – ridding our county of the damaging, illegal grows,” Garrahan said over the weekend. “But my personal opinion is not the law and I am obligated to follow the law.”

DiBasilio says he’s been accused by some of “riding the fence” on the commercial cannabis issue, and he is fine with that. The Board of Supervisors has enacted a ban on commercial growing, so he will enforce that ban, DiBasilio said Friday. His personal opinion is irrelevant, he said, and he will not let his personal opinions dictate which laws he will or will not enforce.

The backstory: according to the current sheriff

In a debate in March, DiBasilio’s responses to questions about cannabis revealed more about how he views banning versus regulation, and his take on how Calaveras County’s pot laws have whiplashed back and forth over the past two years.

“This has been an ongoing question for the past two years that I’ve been dealing with,” DiBasilio said. “I’ve had a lot of people say I’m riding the fence. Well in a sense I am. Because it’s been stated before and I’ll say it again, law enforcement does not make the laws. You people do, and the Board of Supervisors.”

DiBasilio said the pot issue was boiling in Calaveras County before he became sheriff. Back in May 2016, the Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 to appoint DiBasilio to complete the second term of former Sheriff Gary Kuntz, who died unexpectedly Oct. 29, 2015.

“You go back to the inception of all this in 2016 February, the Sheriff’s Office and our district attorney told the board back then, ‘ban it, do not allow it,’” DiBasilio said. “The board chose not to listen.”

When he got appointed sheriff, DiBasilio said, he told the board then, “If you’re going to regulate marijuana do not put it in the residential areas, it’s a bad idea.” DiBasilio said the board did it anyhow. He said he believed the Board of Supervisors at the time did not expect to get the sudden rush of new arrivals seeking to capitalize on regulated commercial cannabis cultivation.

“When they talked about it they thought they were gonna get a couple hundred growers,” DiBasilio said. “Nobody, I mean nobody expected 770 registered growers and the influx of illegal marijuana growers that we got.”

As sheriff, DiBasilio said, he was caught between state and county laws tilting toward increasing legalization, and a responsibility to enforce the letter of existing law as it applied to illegal growers.

“The state of California said that marijuana’s a legal product,” DiBasilio said. “The Board of Supervisors of Calaveras County said it’s a legal product. So I did what I had to do under the law. That is go after the marijuana growers that were growing illegally, and the ones that were registered that weren’t following the rules, they got hammered, we got rid of them too. Bottom line is there is no good solution to this. The damage has been done.”

DiBasilio added later in the debate that he has seen very few problems with the three dispensaries operating in Calaveras County, and he sees no reason for them to shut down or leave. When his challengers suggested there may be room for strict regulation of commercial cannabis at some point, DiBasilio said that option has already been tried and it failed.

“As it stands now in June in this county, commercial marijuana is illegal,” DiBasilio said. “If we had regulation and it didn’t work, maybe that’s not what we need to do.”

The Board of Supervisors split 3-2 on adopting the ban in January. The ban took effect March 9, with a 90-day grace period for permitted cultivators to come into compliance. That period ends June 7. According to the county administrator, all cultivation except for registered personal use must cease after that date.

The challengers: Garrahan

Garrahan says he and his wife Kate have lived 26 years in Calaveras County and they raised their kids here. He says he has 40 years in policing, including work as a police officer, police supervisor, police commander and administrator, in Oakland and Flagstaff. He’s trained academy police officers and he’s deployed twice to Afghanistan as a police subject matter expert for Marine Corps infantry battalions, and taught policing as a college professor.

Garrahan is currently the police science instructor at Calaveras High School.

“The commercial cannabis ban will soon be the law in Calaveras County and I will follow the law and enforce the ban,” Garrahan said over the weekend. “The Board of Supervisors enacted the ban and the obligation to fund it rests with them. My job is to present them with the most comprehensive budget requests in order to convince them what we need funding for.”

Cannabis enforcement will be prioritized along with everything else the Sheriff's Office responds to and investigates, Garrahan said. Cannabis is an issue, but it’s not the only one the county and Sheriff's Office are faced with.

“Both violent and property crimes are rising and we cannot overlook those as priorities and focus solely on commercial cannabis,” Garrahan said.

Garrahan said his leadership skills, experience, and expertise clearly separate him from DiBasilio and Stevens. In spite of the hot-button focus on cannabis in Calaveras County, he says he has plans move the Sheriff's Office forward in other areas, including retention of personnel, increasing community involvement and trust, and becoming more efficient and effective.

The challengers: Stevens

Stevens says he has been a professional peace officer more than 27 years, including service as a patrol deputy, field training officer, crisis negotiator, detective and narcotics investigator with the Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office, patrol, investigations and academy instructor with the Amador County Sheriff’s Office, and in criminal investigations, crime scene investigations and fingerprint examinations with the Amador County District Attorney’s Office.

As the only candidate for sheriff with a stated pro-ban position on commercial marijuana, Stevens said Friday he proposes paying for enforcement of the ban without tax revenues from regulated, registered growers “the same way we in law enforcement have always enforced laws; we do the best we can with what we have.”

Calaveras County will complete the fiscal year with about $9 million in surplus or carry over revenues, Stevens said. That total does not include Measure C tax revenue.

“Some say we need Measure C monies to keep the county running,” Stevens said. “This is not true. We have a current Board of Supervisors that is managing our money better than

the previous Board of Supervisors. There are funds to support the Sheriff's Office.”

Stevens said his strategy to deal with the ban places public safety first and foremost. Recruitment and retention of deputies will be vital. He said he will have no qualms seeking assistance from the federal government in prosecuting cases. He said he has contacted state agencies including the State Franchise Tax Board to ask for their help investigating and prosecuting commercial marijuana activities.

Stevens said he has broader expertise and law enforcement experience than Garrahan and DiBasilio. He says he is focused on cannabis, environmental degradation caused by cultivators, office morale, the shortage of deputies, property crimes, and enforcing the ban.

The sheriff

DiBasilio says he has worked 15 years for the Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office. He started as a recruit in 2002 and worked as a patrol officer, school resource officer, Explorers advisor, detective and sergeant.

Since being appointed to complete the remainder of Kuntz’ term, DiBasilio says he has led his department with strong, progressive leadership with solid qualifications in law enforcement, budget oversight, personnel affairs, policy/procedure development, staff training, public safety, emergency response, investigation and asset protection.

As sheriff, DiBasilio says he has worked to build relationships with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, California Highway Patrol, Angels Camp Police Department, local fire departments, paramedics, and public health providers, as well as the California Office Emergency Services, state Fish & Wildlife, Cal Fire, and the federal Drug Enforcement Agency’s high intensity drug trafficking areas program.

DiBasilio said Friday the Board of Supervisors has ensured they will continue to fund the Marijuana Enforcement Team and the Sheriff's Office will continue to enforce all laws pertaining to marijuana.

DiBasilio said voters should pick him over Garrahan and Stevens because he’s worked most of his adult life in Calaveras County, he’s raised his kids and foster kids in the county, and he has helped bring back or start numerous programs that benefit the community, including school resource officers, the use of trained K-9 law enforcement dogs, a rural crimes task force, the Marijuana Enforcement Team, Bike Team, and an inmate worker program at the county jail.

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