Heather Burke: The Royal Kingdom

Why the National Marijuana Scene Should Be Paying Close Attention to What’s Happening in Nevada County, California

By: Heather L. Burke, Attorney at Law

NEVADA CITY, Calif. May 12, 2016 – Nevada County, California, boasts some of the state’s most beautiful landscape, spanning the base of the Sierra Nevada foothills above Sacramento up to North Lake Tahoe. The County’s geographic location makes it ideal for cultivating the state’s finest craft cannabis, a reputation the local Sheriff has aggressively fought via what can only be described as an anti-cannabis crusade which has become his defining issue, at increasing expense to the state and federal Constitution. Sheriff Keith Royal’s campaign is one the nation should be watching closely as an example of a prohibitionist stronghold, struggling to maintain outdated notions of reefer mania with an iron fist.

An area still rightly characterized as the “wild west,” this isn’t Nevada County’s first brush with allegations of good ol’ boy misconduct as, several years ago, famed filmmaker Michael Moore documented Orwellian violations of criminal defendants’ rights in the Nevada County courthouse. Lately, the area has again seen an uptick of government overreach in various ways that appear designed to increase the Royal’s king-like dominion over one thing in particular: cannabis.

In the most shocking example, the Sheriff recently investigated one of his own, a narcotics detective assigned almost entirely to marijuana detection and eradication, for several allegations of misconduct. The Sheriff’s story is that the detective noticed a discrepancy in his own search warrant and voluntarily asked the assigned prosecutor to dismiss the ensuing criminal case, a case the County admits was “weak” in the first place.

While the Sheriff characterizes the officer’s discrepancy as innocent, the assigned prosecutor (who was second in command in the office and a respected trial lawyer) disagreed to such a degree that he later resigned in protest. The Sheriff’s official story also ignores that another officer filed an official complaint about the detective. Interestingly, the complaining officer was quickly demoted off the narcotics unit, while the detective who committed the purported mistake appears to have gotten somewhat of a promotion; he was later assigned as the primary affiant for almost all marijuana-related search warrants for the most recent outdoor cannabis growing season, during the Sheriff’s investigation (a fact conveniently missing from each and every search warrant)!

As all those cannabis cases would have to be dismissed if the detective’s credibility was impugned, the Sheriff has an interest in upholding the officer’s reputation in order to maintain the Sheriff’s own anti-cannabis kingdom. Thus, even though another officer complained and the County’s 2nd highest (and most experienced) prosecutor resigned as a direct result, the Sheriff recently declared his own officer was “cleared” by his own investigation, an unsurprising result.

It cannot escape note that the culmination of the investigation was disclosed to the public only after local defense attorneys discovered the prosecution sought a private meeting with a judge via secrete filings not given to defense counsel. The purpose of the secret meeting? To ask the judge whether the prosecution had to notify the defense of the investigation into the detective a shocking upset to the separation of powers straight out of a Star Chamber playbook.

Defense attorneys came out in droves against the secretive procedure but, at the hearing, the prosecution’s position suddenly changed. Now the County wanted to disclose the investigation to the defense bar, despite that their new position directly contradicted a previous position in a related case. In the other case, the County used the same procedure to backdoor a secret meeting with the judge, but sought to keep the information under seal. To be clear, the information was never disclosed to the defense attorney in that case. After the County’s about-face in what can only be described as a CYA (“cover your *@#”) disclosure, the Sheriff and prosecution tried to publicly skewer the local defense attorneys for seeking the information, despite that the Sheriff’s secretive procedures created the problem in the first instance,

Another example of local government overreach relating to marijuana is the Sheriff-initiated voter initiative that would ban all cannabis-related activity except for the cultivation of 12 plants indoors under one 1200-watt light, dubbed “Measure W.” The County readily admits that it is intended to preclude future compositions of the Board from ever making changes, even if the ordinance is later determined to be ineffective and expensive. This upset to the democratic process further evidences Royal’s fiefdom of one, a position to which the County happily clings.

Other examples abound but, for brevity’s sake, I’ll say there is no doubt that dirty politics have increased in Nevada County wherever cannabis is at issue, which is why the national cannabis world should be watching what happens in here closely. Royal is the Sheriff Jim Clark of cannabis, choosing absolutist cannabis prohibition as his defining issue, Constitution be damned. To be sure, equality for people of color is a greater human rights issue than is access to medical cannabis, but we cannot dispute that the issues are related, as 3 out of every 4 marijuana arrests are for people of color. And for local children with intractable epilepsy, such as Silas Hurd, access to cannabis is indeed a human rights issue, as their very lives depend on certain strains grown in certain ways (i.e. outdoors).

Nevada County is thus situs to one of the most contentious marijuana debates in Northern California. As such, the nation’s eyes should be watching how this story unfolds, as the struggle towards reasonable regulation in the face of the Sheriff’s allegiance to good ol’ boy ways of maintaining absolutist power over this plant will be a lesson for other counties (for better or worse), as the rest of Northern California’s most famous cannabis counties (Humboldt and Mendocino) enter the brave new world of reasonable cannabis regulations. With the Royal Sheriff as king of Nevada County, California cannabis’ true “wild west,” we can be sure the contention is only just beginning.