The legal cannabis farms of Southern Humboldt county are calling a recent wave of inspections the heaviest-handed enforcement the county has seen in the era of legal cannabis. 

But with how hard they’ve worked to get this far, many are scared to speak up. 

While enforcement actions take place all the time, recent actions involving the Water Board, the Department of Cannabis Control, and The California Department of Fish and Wildlife drew extra criticism with farmers calling them the first armed inspections they’ve had to deal with since going legal. 

John Casali of Huckleberry Hill Farms spent years in the Redwood Creek Drainage area targeted last week. As one of the most public-facing farmers in Southern Humboldt, when Casali started to spread the word about what was happening to his peers, it got out quick. 

“What we’ve heard, to the best of our knowledge, is that Redwood Creek, which is a sensitive watershed, is extremely low, so they’re pointing their fingers at the small permitted farms, along that drainage,” Casali said of his friends’ struggles. “They’re the ones that permitted us.”

Casali went on to explain due to the logistics of being a farmer in The Emerald Triangle the state had been giving them 24-hours notice prior to inspection. This gives the opportunity for farmers to prepare things like putting the dogs away or making sure they’re not at one of their other operations a couple of hours away when the inspectors arrive. 

“It’s been a common courtesy thing,” Casali said. “So what is changed from then to now? We’re trying to find out. Because now all of a sudden Department of Fish and Wildlife is coming armed like they need to protect somebody.”

Casali said 14 farms in the watershed were inspected last week; all were found to have violations. Casali worried it was a heavy-handed strategy to set the area up for further scrutiny down the line. 

“There are so many different rules no matter what,” Casali said. “They can find a little teeny piece of perlite and write you up or if you’re tagging the plants in the right place. There’s something to write every farm up, so it seems like they wrote every farm up for at least a minor violation. So later on down the road, they can say, see, we went to X amount of farms, and they all were in violation.”

We talked with one farmer who has spent years deeply involved in the county’s cannabis policy development. The trio of inspecting agencies caught him by surprise at his farm a few weeks ago, about two hours from where the late August inspections took place. 

The farmer notes part of the trouble is any natural or manmade channel more than 3 x 3 inches can be deemed as a seasonal or active waterway. This leaves a lot of room for enforcement opportunities. 

“So I feel like those just searching for conversions is a little bit propagandist. It’s kind of a false flag to get them through the gates,” the farmer said. 

The most obvious point backing the farmer’s take — why does the water board need two other agencies tagging along if it’s truly a compliance issue in that space?  

“And the guns,” the farmer said, “There’s no reason for guns. We’ve had many, many, inspections over the last six years and none of them involve guns. That just kind of harkens back to the old outlaw days, and back then, it was very much us against them, but they’re still kind of carrying that mentality over.” 

When the farmer asked the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) why they felt the need to be armed, they replied it was to protect the pencil pushers. But this is counter to another argument against firearms being needed. 

Many of the Green Rushers have left The Emerald Triangle, as the pound price crashed. Also departing? Much of the organized crime operating in national forests. Who wants to live in a tent for the summer for $200 bucks a pound? 

Don’t get me wrong, there are some tapped hill kids, but with the departure of some of the most dangerous people in the region, who do inspectors need to be protected from? 

“I’m not saying I’m glad that the organized crime came and went, but they don’t know who’s who, I guess is the gist of it,” the farmer said. “But the market has done what it’s done. It’s pushed everybody out of here. Nobody’s making money right now. People are hanging on by a thread, and it’s because their whole heart and soul are in this, their passion for the plant and  the community.”

We reached out to the Department of Fish and Wildlife to get their take on the move back to armed inspections. The first thing they noted in reply was that these inspections weren’t supposed to be a surprise. When they issued a notice of a community meeting scheduled for August 18th to educate farmers on the current conditions in the watershed it also gave the heads up that there might be inspections. 

“The goal was to hear from licensees and discuss opportunities in the cannabis grant program to promote water conservation efforts. Licensees were given an opportunity to meet one-on-one to address permitting and licensing questions followed by a presentation on watershed conditions,”  a CDFW told L.A. Weekly in an email, “Letters were sent out to notify residents of the community meeting on Aug. 18 and included a courtesy notice of potential compliance inspections in the coming weeks. Many of these letters were returned undeliverable and we are reviewing the reasons they may have been returned.”

CDFW notes all of the encounters were professional and licensees were very cooperative. From their perspective, these compliance visits were a noneventful series of inspections. 

“We have worked hard to build trust with cultivators throughout the state and will continue to do so,” CDFW said, “We understand the sensitivity in the community and are using the feedback we have received as an opportunity for reflection, education, and continued communication and outreach to our licensees.”

As for the guns, CDFW noted the inspection teams were made up of five environmental scientists and one wildlife officer. CDFW said the officer accompanied staff to ensure safety in remote areas where cell phone service is not available. 

“All workers have the right to feel safe during inspections and CDFW and DCC staff take seriously their responsibility to take necessary precautions to ensure workers feel safe and to create an environment of trust-building with licensees,” CDFW said, “Unarmed compliance staff led the inspections, and the wildlife officer stayed back.”

During the Redwood Creek inspections, two of the five sites were found to be diverting water. 

CDFW closed noting these were compliance assistance inspections. They were not enforcement actions against the underground market but were part of an effort to assist the cannabis industry in better compliance with environmental laws with no arrests and no plants eradicated.

“Cannabis permit/license compliance inspections occur year-round throughout the state, some with a 24-hour notice and others with no notice. Each situation is unique,” CDFW said.  

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