Summer of Raids: How California Cops Are Defeating Legalization

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Marijuana legalization is not quite a year old in California, but it would be a mistake to believe there’s much that’s particularly “new,” in either concept or in action.

“California pot stores are on the brink of opening,” is the headline over a report filed by a correspondent for the UK-based Independent. That’s sort of true.

According to the state’s pot czar, Lori Ajax, a former alcohol regulator, the state should join Nevada, Oregon, Colorado, Washington and Alaska in allowing adults over 21 to walk into a store and buy weed sometime after January 2, which is still a few months off (and even that deadline may be blown if state and local lawmakers don’t do their jobs).

For now, the main new newness, and the major change in the way of life in the state’s pot-producing counties, is purely clerical.

Everything is much the same as it was—small farmers are still growing cannabis, although for far less money, as the Independent’s correspondent found—aside for the government’s now intimate involvement in the process. There are permits to be acquired, inspections to schedule and tight rules to follow.

Other than that, there’s much familiar from the renegade days, when everything was black market and everyone was a lawbreaker. There was, as there’s been every summer for decades, police in helicopters buzzing overhead, skirting the treeline and peeking into clandestine clearings and examining backyards—and inviting reporters along for the ride, as writers from the New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle did. Results from their junkets were published this past weekend.

“Legal Marijuana is Almost Here. If Only Pot Farmers Were on Board,” lamented the Times’ offering, which noted that only a small percentage of Northern California’s tens of thousands of small marijuana farmers had acquired all the necessary paperwork—and are therefore illegal, and are therefore worthy of having their crop destroyed by heavily armed men descending from a war machine into their backyards.

Same as it ever was.

In the Chronicle, the tack was less militant, although slightly: “Police crack down on black-market pot to protect regulated growers,” the paper wrote, justifying the black-market era police activity as a benefit to society.

According to law enforcement, everybody grows marijuana in counties like Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties in California’s Redwood Empire: as much as 75 percent of the residents in certain rural areas. And according to law enforcement, almost everyone is a law breaker; as few as 10 percent of pot growers have bothered to register, get their grows legal and comply with local rules.

Why is this?

Cops aren’t sure, but they’re sure of this: Nobody will go legitimate if there isn’t incentive. And in this case, the motivator is almost all stick, no carrot. This is the justification given for why plant seizures are on pace to break old records.

“You want to first give people a chance to get into that regulated market,” said Ajax, the state pot czar, to the Times. “And then it’s going to take some strong enforcement.”

Except that doesn’t appear to be what’s happening.

The “chance” was the notice, put out earlier this year, that commercial cannabis activity would require a permit. And almost immediately after has come the enforcement.

And as usual, people with modest gardens who believed they were following the rules are treated in a manner similar to trespass grows police contend are connected to cartels.

The Chronicle observed a “bare-chested man in dirty blue harem pants,” who’d lived on a remote property for a decade, tending the 25-plant garden for an 83-year-old landowner. As the man’s eight-year-old son watched, police cut down his year’s work for a water violation. He was apparently pulling water from a nearby river illegally, unbeknownst to him.

This was the story’s coda, but it should have been the focus.

Nobody—not even the sheriff in Mendocino County—admits to fully understanding what’s legal and what’s not.

“There’s more gray area” in marijuana law now than ever before, Sheriff Tom Allman told the paper. Meanwhile, other growers, used to an off-the-grid life, have been flummoxed by the reams of paperwork required to go legal, as well as costly fees and taxes.

Something’s clearly not working—and in their usual hamhanded fashion, police aren’t helping.

If the end goal is compliance, marijuana farms should be treated like anything else that’s out of compliance. They get a visit from a bureaucrat and a warning to get things straight. Then they get fined, or perhaps, they get shut down.

This is how restaurants, casinos and liquor stores are treated. Imagine how reluctant some industries would be if the first visit from the authorities was from heavily armed police towing a wood chipper with which they planned to destroy everything wholesale.

Instead, police and regulators both scratch their heads and wonder aloud why pot farmers aren’t getting on board. Maybe if they shut off the helicopter and put the wood chippers away, they’d have space to figure it out

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