The Great Cannabis Clash of Calaveras County

Which brings us back to cannabis and cops. In the spring, the Calaveras Cannabis Alliance (CCA), an advocacy group for the local industry, put up $60,000 to help replace Bret Harte High School’s lost on-campus cop. The Enterprise called it a “hefty” and “significant” offer, likening it to any other kind of munificence from a well-to-do business looking to “give back,” like the local Chamber of Commerce or some nearby wineries.

But in May, the Angels Camp City Council voted to reject the check. Marijuana is federally illegal, they reasoned, and the town or school might somehow get in trouble.


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It was the flimsiest of premises, considering that the state of California accepts hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes from marijuana sellers, and—as the city attorney told the Council—taking out Angels Camp isn’t likely to ever land on Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s to-do list.

If the CCA really wanted to help, the Council suggested, it could instead spend its $60,000 on printing pamphlets describing how cannabis is harmful to the teenage brain.

It was the moral equivalent of a broke high school turning down money for a new track or new computers from Coca-Cola or Google and kindly telling the corporate sponsor to fund an anti-obesity or internet-addiction-awareness campaign instead.

“Everyone is willing to say what they don’t want. No one is willing to say what they do want.”

Jack Garamendi, Calaveras County supervisor

It wasn’t the first time the CCA, which doesn’t sell marijuana itself but takes contributions from organizations that do, saw its efforts at philanthropy cause trouble. And it was one of many times when people in Calaveras County told the marijuana industry, in plain language, that it would rather starve than accept a meal ticket paid for by cannabis. A few weeks earlier, a senior-citizens service organization had its budget process put on pause while lawyers pondered whether another gift from CCA—a car—should have been accepted.

On Election Day last fall, cannabis was the key issue on the ballot. While California voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 64, the state’s adult-use legalization measure, voters in Calaveras rejected it by more than a thousand votes, upward of two percentage points. Another local measure, which would have put regulations in place for commercial marijuana cultivation, was also rejected. Voters did approve the limited, square-footage-based tax on marijuana farms, however, which, according to a county estimate, could generate as much as $10 million a year.


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“I do not want it,” one resident told the local paper, “but if it is here, we might as well tax it.”

Pushback continued to grow. Calaveras County is governed by a five-member Board of Supervisors. Because nearly all of Calaveras is unincorporated, county supervisor is the top elected post. Two supervisors who had supported the local cannabis industry were soon thrown out and replaced by anti-marijuana candidates who campaigned on the promise that, come spring, voters would have the chance to ban commercial marijuana cultivation outright.

Their campaigns were “reefer madness to the max, OK?” said Bob Bowerman, a former advertising executive and longtime cannabis activist who now runs the county chapter of NORML (and who ran for supervisor himself against a pro-ban candidate, losing by 351 votes). But the effort worked. Ancient arguments about marijuana’s social evils, coupled with the promise that voters could send the county’s marijuana farmers packing, were political winners.

To understand why, it’s important to remember who lives in rural California, with its open land for cattle ranching and tall trees to shade homesteads. “Back-to-the-land hippies and religious conservatives,” said Trevor Wittke, a lanky 30-something who serves as CCA’s executive director. Wittke grew up in the county and fell into the former category. Many of his schoolmates were in the latter and are now among those who want to outlaw commercial cannabis farms. “There’s a strong moral and religious conservative element to the ban,” Wittke told me.


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“It’s absolutely driven by ideology—and by fear, in many ways,” added Jack Garamendi, a supervisor who held onto his seat in the last election despite supporting a regulated pot industry.

Garamendi ran through the numbers for me: Calaveras County is more than a thousand square miles. By growing cannabis on less than 180 acres—just 20% of a single square mile—the county “can generate more than $12 million in revenue for our schools, our libraries, law enforcement,” he said. “If you just look at the numbers, you’d say, ‘I don’t get this. This doesn’t make sense. Why wouldn’t you do this?’”

The promise to give cannabis the boot nearly came to pass. Organizers of an anti-cannabis campaign collected signatures from 5,220 voters in support of an outright ban. A special election, with the ban on the ballot, was scheduled for May 2. But growers narrowly avoided it after Bowerman filed a legal challenge, and in March a judge ruled that the ballot question was misleading. (By that point, the county had already printed ballots at an estimated cost of up to $40,000.)

Bob Bowerman, who runs the Calaveras County chapter of NORML, filed a lawsuit to disqualify a ballot question that would have banned cannabis businesses in the county. (Chris Roberts for Leafly)

Undaunted, the new anti-marijuana Board of Supervisors in April introduced a ban of its own. A vote could come before the end of September, just as the cannabis crop reaches maturity. The question will go to voters as soon as an environmental impact report, prepared by the planning department, is certified.

Judging by the board’s comments at a June 20 meeting, if the ban comes up for a vote, it will pass. And if it does, “it has the potential to bankrupt the county,” said Debbie Ponte, a former county supervisor who now runs a local business development organization in Angels Camp. “If there’s a ban, it dries up everything.”

If the ban goes through, there’s already talk of lawsuits and another special election, this one cooked up by the pro-marijuana set. It’s as if the entire cycle is repeating itself in mirror image.


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Nearly every step of the process has been arduous—almost absurdly so. In late June, the county’s website was hacked by a group claiming allegiance to the Islamic State. While other county offices’ web presences are back online, the planning department—with its marijuana-related documents—has yet to be restored. In other words, the county’s most important government debate is being conducted primarily in analog.

In the meantime, cannabis is still the talk of the county, in competing letters to the editor printed in the Enterprise and in ongoing flame wars in the newspaper’s comments section and on Facebook.

“It’s been absolutely insane, and you can quote me on that,” said Caz Tomaszewski.

Tomaszewski, 32, is the CCA’s former executive director. A transplant from Sacramento, he moved to Calaveras to grow cannabis in February 2015. He’d worked in health care after a serious bout with a condition he described only as a “complex, chronic illness” in college, but found himself disaffected by an industry focused on pharmaceuticals.

He picked Calaveras over, say, Humboldt or Mendocino because it was not yet “damaged by decades of drug war.”


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“It didn’t have the same culture of paranoia and greed, where people are afraid to talk to neighbors and afraid of cops and all that,” he told me.

If it didn’t then, it might now. Supervisor Dennis Mills, one of the newly elected leaders pushing for a ban, calls marijuana legalization “a great social experiment … gone wrong.” Mills did not return emails and phone messages from Leafly, but in a May interview published in the San Francisco Chronicle, he outlined the basic anti-marijuana script, often echoed in the Enterprise’s letters section: dogs barking, generators running all night, loud music blasting, and a certain unsavory element in Calaveras County that wasn’t there before.

“The commercial cultivation of marijuana has and will continue to bring a criminal element into our County,” proclaims the website of The Committee to Stop Commercial Cultivation, the organization behind the failed ban ballot initiative. The website’s homepage once displayed a banner headline thanking Attorney General Jeff Sessions for his bellicose anti-cannabis stance. Other sections issue dire warnings of “assaults, vandalism, [and] murders.”

The “committee” is mostly one man, a fixture at local board meetings named Bill McManus. He didn’t respond to a telephone message seeking comment.

(Chris Roberts for Leafly)

“Outside gangs and criminals have and will continue to come into our County to steal the mature marijuana plants during time of harvest,” the website declares. “Cartel gangs are currently illegally growing marijuana in Calaveras County.”

There’s scant evidence for most of those claims. While eradication teams do make routine busts of unlicensed grows—including a recent 1,100-plant haul—and there was one marijuana-connected homicide in late 2015, there have been no major cases involving organized crime.


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While most complaints center on crime, others suggest a deeper, cultural rift.

“Our family moved to this county to get away from these anti-social, drug-driven groups of folk in the Bay Area,” reads an entry under the website’s testimonials section. “And now, here they are.”

One can read the comment as relating to more than just cannabis, and many have. The San Francisco Bay Area—with its booming tech economy and thriving, well-regulated cannabis industry—is racially and culturally diverse. Calaveras, meanwhile, is more than 90% white.

But even the CCA and other industry members concede that the prohibitionists have a point: Cannabis growers can be annoying. And, quite possibly, a quarter-acre cannabis farm on a two-acre plot might be too much weed. Too much, too soon, too close to residences—and all of it far too fast.


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“Even in our neighborhood, there’s constant dog-barking, generators running 24 hours a day,” Bloom Farm’s Mike Ray told me. “I think a lot of it stems from an influx of—what’s the word?—an influx of newcomers, many of whom are bad actors.”

“And all of that,” he said, echoing the argument growers make at each and every county supervisors meeting, “is caused by non-regulation.”

Logistically, banning marijuana seems virtually impossible. It would require resources the county simply does not have. On top of that, if the marijuana taxes go away, the budget deficit grows by millions overnight. If police are laid off and inspectors aren’t hired, who, exactly, will shut down the bad growers? And if the marijuana industry is denied a place in Calaveras County, what do local leaders plan to put in its place to balance the budget and create jobs?

“I have asked that question, and nobody has provided me with an answer,” Supervisor Garamendi said. “Everyone is willing to say what they don’t want. No one is willing to say what they do want.”

“The majority of the board continues to move forward with a plan that, in many ways, is driving off a fiscal cliff,” he continued. “They’re hoping we sprout wings before we crash. That’s a big hope.”

Ray of Bloom Farms agreed. “If they ban it, and push it underground, they will spend the next five years arresting people and spending millions of dollars for nothing,” he said.

“They’re stuck in their old ways,” he added. “They’re comfortable without it. But they don’t see the big picture.”

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