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California’s Capital City to Send SWAT Teams after Noncompliant Pot Grows

Chris Roberts

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Sometime before the Labor Day holiday, heavily armed and highly trained law-enforcement officers will fan out across Sacramento, California’s capital city and the main center of commerce and culture in the state’s vast Central Valley.

Following elite cops from the Sacramento Police Department’s SWAT team will be an army of rulebook and paperwork wonks: building inspectors and code-enforcement officers.

As the Sacramento Bee is reporting, this is the dream team that city leaders are sending out into the world to suss out illegal marijuana grows—a one-size-raids-all approach that will snare both cartel-connected trafficking rings, as well as homegrows a few plants or a few square feet too big and ergo out of code compliance.

Marijuana legalization has meant that, since Election Night last year, it’s perfectly legal for all Californians aged 21 and over to possess up to an ounce of cannabis and to cultivate up to six plants in their homes. Medical marijuana patients are allowed more—more plants and more cannabis in their personal possession—and commercial cannabis activity, involving many, many more plants and pounds and pounds of pot, is also legal, provided the operators acquire permits and pay fees.

But in the almost 10 months since, authorities in law enforcement and government have set rules so strict or set fees so high as to render legalization irrelevant or unworkable—or, in Sacramento’s case, taken an approach skewed so heavily towards the carceral that it sends a clear message: Marijuana legalization is a right you use at your own risk.

Some communities have passed laws requiring fees or permit inspections before six-plant homegrows can be planted. Others have suggested charging would-be homegrowers for commercial-grade water hookups costing tens of thousands of dollars.

Sacramento’s plan presents a different conundrum—someone growing a few big plants runs the risk of having the SWAT team called in on them by a neighbor—but the chilling effect will be the same. People will buy their cannabis at a dispensary, thank you very much, and avoid the unwelcome visit.

According to Joe Devlin, head of the city’s new Office of Cannabis Policy, there are as many as 1,000 illegal growing operations in Sacramento. Whether those are grows slightly out of compliance, medical grows with expired paperwork or outright ongoing criminal enterprises is unclear—and, ultimately, irrelevant. For the grows, at least. All are lumped into the same smartpot, with the end goal clear: Eradication.

This approach mirrors others taken across the state, which, some growers and cannabis advocates are warning, is an existential threat to legalization.

The whole point of going legit and exiting the black market was to have authorities on your side. You know—to end the War on Drugs and to bring once-renegade growers “out of the shadows.” Regulate and tax. That whole thing.

Try to think of an analogy here. Code enforcement goes out to make sure your bathroom follows zoning laws, if the kitchen in the restaurant is clean or to verify if the mod on your car is street legal. If it isn’t, then a fine is assessed and corrective action is prescribed. The car isn’t seized, the bathroom isn’t removed, and the restaurant isn’t demolished. Yet, it appears that’s the plan of attack for wayward marijuana grows.

Choosing SWAT teams to handle this pencil-neck’s job is a display of particularly delicious but surely unintentional irony.

SWAT teams were pioneered in 1960s Los Angeles, when future police Chief Daryl F. Gates gave military veterans on his force military-style weapons and tactics, and deployed them to quell riots. These are the kinds of cops you’re glad to have on your side when the job is apprehending El Chapo Guzman. That’s not the job that these teams are now being called to do. Instead, they go on no-knock drug raids of civilian homes, where the greatest threat on the premises is the SWAT team itself.

Or it would be ironic, if the underlying message—it is far too brutal and clumsy to be called subliminal—wasn’t clear. You may live in a time of legalization, but think twice before you act like it.

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