Cannabis Farmer Calaveras County

(Photo by Mason Trinca for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

legalization | 01.01.2022

California county makes millions in taxes off pot farms and then shuts them down

The farmers paid $5000 each for cultivation permits. Now, they’ve been given 90 days to start their lives over.

Calaveras County, California, home to about 45,000 people, had already been struggling for revenue. Then came a devastating 2015 wildfire that displaced hundreds of local residents and businesses. The county embraced cannabis as a way to recover economically. About 200 farmers came aboard, paying for cultivation permits. The money started flowing. The county raised millions of dollars in pot fees and taxes, and used it to hire additional police and staff.

But then a new board of supervisors—campaigning to ban pot—won the election in November and took office this month, reports NBC Bay Area. The newly constituted board last week voted 3-2 to ban marijuana from the county.

The vote to ban pot occurred less than a month after California authorized retail adult cannabis sales. (California’s marijuana legalization law gives cities and counties the power to ban marijuana within their jurisdictions.) Growers who paid more than $5,000 for cultivation permits and paid their taxes were given three months to close down. Now, they say they are going to sue.

Calaveras County has collected more than $7 million in taxes from marijuana growers since 2016, reports the Associated Press.

“We have known this day could come and we have prepared for this eventuality for the last year,” said Trevor Witke, who’s president of the Calaveras Cannabis Alliance growers’ group. “We are going to move forward with everyone who has been impacted by this decision.”

The growers said they may try a ballot measure to reverse the marijuana ban in the county. The coming of cannabis culture—and cannabis money—has deeply divided Calaveras County, about 150 miles east of San Francisco.

There’s been a backlash among more conservative residents, and that’s led to the ouster of some politicians who had approved cannabis cultivation. Proponents of the pot ban claimed a sudden influx of marijuana growers dramatically changed the county and damaged the environment.

Calaveras County—about the size of Rhode Island, but having only one incorporated city—had well more than 1,000 illegal marijuana farms. That’s in addition to the 200 licensed ones, according to Sheriff Rick DiBasilio. Hundreds more had applications pending.

Cash Shortage

GettyImages 867307786 5th grader accidentally hands out gummy edibles at school
Zach Taylor trims marijuana buds at SPARC in Glen Ellen, California on October 18, 2017. Joey Ereneta, Director of cultivation, says that the buds will be tested for contaminants left by the fires. (Photo by Mason Trinca for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

County supervisors in 2017 struggled with a $3.6 million budget deficit. Unemployment got as high as 15 percent, with nearly one in eight residents losing their jobs. That number would likely have been even higher if not for the large number of retirees, lured by cheap land; half the people there are over 50 years old.

Deaths outnumber births by about 100 a year, giving the county a negative growth rate. The local job market depends almost entirely on tourism—and cannabis was one of the tourist draws.

Some residents want to rejuvenate the region’s economy. But it’s difficult to see exactly how they’re going to do that if Calaveras County won’t allow cannabis.

Ideal Weed Weather

The weather in Calaveras County, as in much of Northern California, is ideal for cultivating cannabis. With its hot days, cool nights, and dry weather nine months out of the year, some specialists say, that it has the best climate on Earth for growing weed. And like most rural areas of California, marijuana has been grown in Calaveras County for decades, albeit mostly illegally.

After the 2015 Butte Fire, growers who were pushed out of the competitive Emerald Triangle growing area came to Calaveras County for the cheap land. They joined established medical marijuana growers like Mike Ray of Bloom Farms. Ray employs 50 people, with 10 working directly on the pot farm.

While some Calaveras County farmers who were part of the Green Rush set up sophisticated farms, others merely parked RVs and started growing, reports the Sacramento Bee. In some cases, they planted hundreds of plants on plots next to suburban homes.

With an estimated 1,600 illegal cannabis farms in the county, according to the county planning department, marijuana is easily the top industry in Calaveras County.

GettyImages 864225902 5th grader accidentally hands out gummy edibles at school
(Photo by Mason Trinca for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Calaveras County Sold Grow Permits For $5,000…Then Banned Cannabis

Last summer, Calaveras County officials decided that cannabis was a good way out of the economic devastation caused by the wildfires. They started selling permits for some of the largest legal plots of marijuana in California, up to half an acre. (That’s enough room for about 500 plants, enough to grow about 1,000 pounds of weed.)

But the mad rush of moneyed outsiders into the sleepy community in Calaveras County caused a backlash among locals. In May 2017, the Calaveras Cannabis Alliance put up $60,000 to help fill an empty position for Bret Harte High School’s on-campus cop, but the Angels Camp City Council voted to reject the check. The council somewhat testily suggested that the CCA should spend its $60K printing pamphlets describing how marijuana harms teenagers.

Calaveras County’s new marijuana ban doesn’t just have the potential to bankrupt the county. It appears downright likely it will, with layoffs looming. Local property manager Clyde Clapp, who was elected to the board of supervisors on an anti-marijuana platform, said that’s because the pot issue creates a “cultural clash,” reports The Sacramento Bee.

There’s talk of another special election backed by pro-cannabis forces. In the meantime, flame wars continue in the online comments section of the Calaveras Enterprise newspaper and on Facebook.

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