Heather Burke: What the County Isn’t Telling Us About Their Cannabis Initiative

NEVADA CITY, Calif. February 8, 2016 – Only once in the conversation about local cannabis cultivation have we heard the County suggest “an overturn of the ban could lead to the formation of a committee that would search for alternatives to an outright prohibition on outdoor grows.”  Not a word of this possibility was hinted at the Board of Supervisors meeting on January 12, nor in the official numerous statements in the fallout over the poorly drafted language of the two enactments, nor even in the purported “intent” language the Board will ratify on February 9th.

If indeed it is true that a “No” vote in June would result in the formation of a commission to “search for alternatives to outright prohibition,” we must ask why the County is keeping this alternative secret, particularly where all parties agree cannabis cultivation is going to continue in spite of the ban: if growers flourished under threat of state and federal arrest, they will be undaunted by a civil land-use ban.

Indeed, the Sheriff already conceded the ban will be ineffective as he immediately sought to double his helicopter budget mere days after it was enacted. If the ban were expected to be effective, why would the Sheriff need twice as many resources to locate gardens from the air?  He wouldn’t.   And when all parties agree outright prohibition won’t work, but enact it anyway, the governmental purpose cannot be to stop the prohibited conduct. So what is the real purpose of the cultivation ban in Nevada County?

By expanding control over the subject matter, the Sheriff can shape discourse about cultivation to suit his partisan position (and the doubling of his budget) as we move towards the end of prohibition.  We saw this play out at the BOS meeting where photos of gardens were purported to be “bad actors.”  I was familiar with those photos, as many were of my clients’ gardens.  The overwhelming majority were not diverting water and were “organic. The gardeners were gentle folk and none were cited because of smell. Instead, the Sheriff located the gardens by air and called the “complaint” into the abatement unit themselves.

The Board sadly allowed the Sheriff to contort these “facts” to support a civil ban, which the Sheriff immediately bootstrapped into a need for increased crime surveillance. The need for more helicopters will soon become a need for more officers, and so on, ad infinitum.  

Rather than verify the Sheriff’s “facts,” the Supervisors rushed to enact a law they did not understand, as was made clear when they admitted the “emergency” ordinance will continue regardless of the June election. Then they incredulously downplayed the importance of their vote by demeaning compliance, suggesting growers violate the law.  Our Board Chair, Dan Miller, stated, “If you’re growing one, two plants outside… I don’t think there’s gonna be an issue.” He joked no one would notice cannabis plants placed inside a patch of artichokes, suggesting a manner to elude detection. At the Town Hall meeting on the Ridge, Supervisor Hank Weston said growing outside was okay if neighbors didn’t complain, contradicting the clear message of the Sheriff’s request to double his helicopters.

How can the Board ask growers to respect a law the Supervisors don’t respect, particularly after they’ve flaunted the ease of violating it in the faces of those to whom such regulation truly matters?  When lawmakers irreverently advise the breaking of the very rules they enact, they breed disrespect for the entire rule of law.

And bitter disappointment spread throughout the community like wildfire, though the disappointment was not limited to the ban, as no one believes the ordinance will curb the tide (and the Sheriff already banked on it to the tune of $66,000). Rather, the bubbling excitement of all stakeholders – the hope that irrational prohibition was subsiding to make way for effective regulation – was thoughtlessly squelched, and with it the trust many of us have been building with patients and growers for decades.  

Instead, the Sheriff hints of a “commission” if-and-only-if we vote “No” on his woefully-drafted and expectedly ineffective ban on June 7th, which brings me back to my question of why the County has not told us a “No” vote could mean the formation of a committee purposed to bring growers into compliance, generate enough revenue to monitor compliance, and united the community in an unprecedented effort.

If the County wanted effective cannabis policy, they would have sought it from the outset. However, as discussed above, effective regulation is not their point, lest the Sheriff’s role in the conversation (and thus his budget) be reduced.

When voting in June, please remember a “No” vote is a vote for regulations that work.

Heather Burke is an attorney practicing in Nevada County.