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California Judge Throws Out Hmong Farmers’ Discrimination Claims

Bill Weinberg

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California Judge Throws Out Hmong Farmers' Discrimination Claims

On September 12, a federal judge in Sacramento ruled that sheriff’s deputies and other officials in Northern California’s Siskiyou County did not discriminate against Hmong residents while carrying out marijuana enforcement operations and other investigations last year.

“I am disappointed that the Court could not see how brutally my clients’ most fundamental American rights were violated,” attorney Brian Ford told the Redding Record Searchlight.

The suit against Siskiyou Sheriff Jon Lopey and other county officials stemmed from Hmong residents’ claims that they were harassed and intimidated based on their ethnicity. The suit also claimed Hmong residents were disproportionately cited for marijuana violations.

But Judge John Mendez wrote: “Plaintiffs simply do not identify any ‘longstanding practice or custom’ of the County discriminatorily enforcing medical marijuana ordinances and related laws against Asian Americans.”

Ominously, one day after the ruling in the case, the the Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 to declare an unprecedented “state of emergency” over illegal cannabis cultivation in the county. Such declarations are usually reserved for natural disasters like floods, fires or earthquakes.

In lobbying for the declaration, Sheriff Lopey said he turned down a $1 million bribe from a pair of pot growers to protect their operation.

Lopey testified: “Last week, I was supposed to get a bag of cash with $84,000. Are they doing that because they just want enough marijuana to meet their recreational or medicinal needs? No. I don’t think so.”

California Judge Throws Out Hmong Farmers' Discrimination ClaimsLopey also emphasized the “social justice and certainly the environmental implications” of the county’s pot economy in calling for the  emergency declaration.

He cited the toxic chemicals used at illicit grows and other dangerous conditions, including the carbon monoxide deaths of three people sleeping in trailers at grow sites.

However, earlier reports of carbon monoxide deaths in the Mount Shasta News didn’t mention that they were connected to grow operations.

Both the social justice and environmental concerns around Northern California’s cannabis economy are legitimate. But there seems to be an irony in Lopey’s invocation of social justice concerns in light of the complaints filed by the county’s Hmong residents.

Thanks to the Hmong controversy, this remote county in the mountainous territory along the California-Oregon border recently got a rare feature write-up in the Los Angeles Times.

The report said that more than 1,500 Hmong farmers in the last two years have “poured into” Siskiyou County, and noted some outrageous acts of discrimination against them. For instance, last year the town council in Yreka declared the Hmong farmers “undesired,” and cut off water sales to their plots.

The LA Times account also mentioned that, traditionally, the Hmong were famous opium growers in their ancestral homeland in the mountains of Laos.

Many Hmong immigrants came to the United States after Laos’s civil war in the 1960s and ’70s. During the war, Hmong militias sided with the CIA and Green Berets who were fighting communist insurgents. When the war was over, and communist forces took power in 1975, many Hmong communities faced persecution under the new government.

During the civil war, the CIA had been happy to facilitate opium exports from the Laos highlands as a way to fund the Hmong militias.

But now that these same Hmong communities are moving into the turf of rednecks and white hippies in the Emerald Triangle, the stigma of opium-growing is being used against them. The LA Times paraphrases one conveniently anonymous Hmong community leader in Sacramento as saying, “marijuana is the new opium.”

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