Most cannabis growers near watersheds still don’t have permits

Humboldt County supervisors vote to keep permit caps in place

Many of the existing cannabis grows at the Van Duzen River are still not fully permitted. (Times-Standard file)
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The vast majority of existing cannabis grows near various watersheds in Humboldt County are still not fully permitted, according to official data.

More than 1,400 people are stuck somewhere in the permit application process for grow sites near local watersheds. At the Van Duzen River, the county has capped the potential total number of permits at 425, but so far, only 57 applications have been approved from a pool of more than 200.

Prompted by idle progress, county officials have shifted focus toward helping small growers reach compliance, reserving code enforcement for only severe violations of local cannabis policies, Planning and Building director John Ford said Tuesday.

“There are people within the permit system who are some of the most egregious violators right now and we are working to bring them into compliance,” Ford told the Board of Supervisors.

The board voted unanimously Tuesday to keep caps in place on the number of permits allowed at each of the local watersheds.

Ford estimated that about 50% of all cultivation sites near the watersheds are now occupied.

“One of the things we’re finding is that, particularly within the sensitive watersheds, there is a high concentration of small cultivation sites,” Ford said. “While those aren’t this year’s priorities, they will be priorities in the future to address.”

The county’s newer commercial pot ordinance has led to “more complete” applications arriving on Ford’s desk, he said, noting he had just signed off on three more permits that morning.

Meanwhile, officials efforts to abate illicit grows have had “incredible success,” county staff noted in an agenda report. In 2018, officials ramped up enforcement by 700%, hauling in more than $2 million in fines.

After hearing from staff about the permit deficit, 5th District Supervisor Steve Madrone raised concerns about cannabis enforcement — not with Planning and Building’s abatement practices, but the county Sheriff’s Office aggressive enforcement tactics.

“What I hear from the community is there needs to be fact-checking before the sheriff shows up at the gate,” Madrone said. He later referred to numerous instances of sheriff’s deputies “harassing” suspected illegal pot growers and “trashing” their houses.

Fifth District Supervisor Steve Madrone took exception to law enforcement’s treatment of suspected illegal cannabis growers. (Jose Quezada — The Times-Standard file)

Earlier this summer, Sheriff William Honsal called on the National Guard to assist local law enforcement with crackdowns on illegal cannabis.

Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson, who was raised in Garberville, said the military helicopter raids reminded him of his childhood, when the statewide Campaign Against Marijuana Planting aggressively swooped down on unsuspecting Humboldt County growers.

Honsal, present at Tuesday’s meeting, was quick to defend law enforcement practices.

“We are moving forward; we are not going to stop,” Honsal told the supervisors, “because the situation is serious out there.”

Honsal noted that the county’s violent crime rate is twice the state’s average homicide numbers.

“That has to do with marijuana,” Honsal said. “If we didn’t have our marijuana-related homicides last year, we’d be right in the middle of the state averages.”

He also called attention to illegal cannabis growers’ tendency to negatively impact the natural environment for their operations. The Van Duzen River has become “subterranean” because growers continue to divert water from the site for their pot farms, he said.

But Madrone, long a critic of heavy pot regulations, pilloried law enforcement’s selectivity in protecting the environment, calling it “poor form” that the sheriff’s office hasn’t similarly addressed environmental impacts posed by the timber industry, whose logging practices have cleared large swaths of forestland.

Second District Supervisor Estelle Fennell was quick to remind her colleague that local law enforcement’s treatment of cannabis stems from the crop’s status as a Schedule 1 illegal drug at the federal level. Nevertheless, Madrone won applause from a number of pro-cannabis advocates in attendance.

Staff informed the supervisors that state and regional agencies are monitoring the water quality and flow at some of the county’s watersheds. The county agenda report indicates the research includes seasonal flow measurements, turbidity and temperature.

“These ongoing efforts have only just begun and are expected to take three years or more,” the report states. “However, once these studies are completed, we expect to be able to draw conclusions about the impact of cannabis production and permitting on the health of these critical watersheds.”

Shomik Mukherjee can be reached at 707-441-0504.

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