Joy* recently got a visit from the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office for some cannabis-growing violations on her property.
She first started growing cannabis in the ’90s to stimulate her appetite while undergoing therapies for cancer. Now cancer-free, she maintains her medical card to help with her appetite, and for insomnia. But after the visit from law enforcement, Joy got hit with a hefty fine.
“It’s just all about money. How much money can they get? And they don’t care who they get it from,” says Joy, who recently paid the $125 fee to file an appeal.
A recent report from the Cannabis Licensing Office—covering enforcement from July through September—lists four red tags issued, 20 administrative citations issued, eight citations appealed, $20,600 paid, $928,721 still owed, 10 firearms seized, 31 site inspections, and $14,344 seized.
Law enforcement has been known to fly over rural areas, looking for hoop houses and other signs of under-the-table operations. Santa Cruz cannabis attorney Trevor Luxon thinks county residents and growers may not realize how easily sheriff’s officers can access someone’s property to do a search.
“A lot of people don’t realize it doesn’t really take a whole lot to get a search warrant. A couple of quick-snapped photos or a really high PG&E bill—that’s plenty,” says Luxon, a partner at the law firm Rice, Luxon & Bolster-Grant.
Luxon and other cannabis attorneys say the raids, fines and crackdowns have been getting a lot higher in recent weeks.
And Santa Cruz County officials aren’t really disputing it.
“There is increased enforcement. You know why? It’s grow season. That’s why,” Santa Cruz County Communications Manager Jason Hoppin says. “So we’re at the end of grow season; this happens every year. There’s increased enforcement during that [time].”
Before going into private practice, cannabis attorney Robin Bolster-Grant worked more than 15 years as a planner in the Santa Cruz County Planning Department.
After that, Bolster-Grant served as the country’s second-ever manager for the Cannabis Licensing Office. During her tenure, she helped write the original ordinance for the non-retail commercial cannabis businesses, including for cultivation, manufacturing, distribution, and enforcement.
“The history of growing cannabis in Santa Cruz County goes back generations,” Bolster-Grant says. “So the idea was to keep moving people toward legalization and, when you screwed up, get you back on track.”
After leaving the county, Bolster-Grant co-founded the Rice, Luxon & Bolster-Grant law firm with Luxon and legendary cannabis attorney Ben Rice, who’s best known for successfully defending the Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana in 2002, after the dispensary was blindsided by a federal drug bust.
Until recently, failure to comply with the portion of the county’s cannabis code known as Chapter 7.128—which establishes the licensing system, resulted in fines not to exceed $2,500 for a first violation, $5,000 for a second in a year, and $7,500 for each subsequent infraction. That changed over the past summer.
On June 30, the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors passed Ordinance No. 5333 amending Chapter 7.128. The changes allow for new administrative citations for non-licensed growers. These fines include $100 per live cannabis plant in excess of six plants, $100 per package of cannabis product, $100 per gram of concentrate, $100 per pound of cannabis biomass, and $500 per pound of flower.
Bolster-Grant says the county has the authority to punish those growing for medicinal purposes on minor violations, and she says it’s tough for her to watch.
California voters approved the use of medical cannabis in 1996 with the passage of Proposition 215. Voters subsequently approved the Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA) 20 years later, but the laws protecting medical cannabis growers still stand.
The website for the nonprofit California National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) even states on its website that “the argument can be made that patients may legally possess more than the one ounce and six plants allowed under AUMA if their medical needs require.”
Sam LoForti, the current cannabis licensing office manager, says, however, that law enforcement officials aren’t going after those with medical cards.
“Generally speaking, if people have prescriptions, if people have the documentation, the sheriff just walks away,” LoForti says.
Twenty-four years after California voters first approved the use of cannabis for medical purposes, the landscape has shifted dramatically—and repeatedly. LoForti says a variety of factors led to the change in enforcement and penalties.
One of them, he explains, was the effort to improve the structure of fines and make the penalties more proportional, so that big grows would have larger fines and small grows would have smaller ones.
LoForti says the county has issued 36 citations for non-compliant grows since July 1. Two have been for more than $100,000 and two have been over $300,000. The median is $13,350, the average is $52,000, and more than 80% are between $2,000 and $20,000.
Of those who have appealed the citations, LoForti estimates that two appellants have won their appeals.
According to a county report, the county has issued 38 non-retail licenses to date. As of Sept. 30, nine additional license applications—eight cultivation and one for manufacturing—are being processed. The county has issued 12 retail licenses.
Bolster-Grant does not think country leadership understands the pressures that cannabis growers and manufacturers face. It’s expensive and cumbersome, she says, to go through the county’s legalization process. And that, she argues, makes it difficult for lots of operators to turn a profit the legal way.
Hoppin, on the other hand, isn’t so sure.
“I don’t know what the hurdle would be,” Hoppin says of the licensing process. “But if they can’t go through the process, they can’t go through the process. We’ve been doing this for over a decade.”
Luxon gives LoForti credit for doing a lot of work developing the idea to create new cottage licenses, which could have been used by small farms on small parcels. “Create an easy, quick licensing process where you wouldn’t have to spend $200,000 on geological reports and architects,” he explains.
But the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors shot down the proposal and showed little interest in the concept, LoForti says. Nonetheless, he thinks it was a good idea, and says the county could revisit the concept should the board choose to do so.
“We were trying to provide a mechanism that would allow people who wish to have a cottage garden a 500-square-foot license to be able to do so in a not-so-cost-intensive manner,” he says.
* Name has been changed to protect source’s identity