UPDATE: Armed Cannabis Farm Inspections in Southern Humboldt County Resurface Trauma for Legacy Growers
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UPDATE: Armed Cannabis Farm Inspections in Southern Humboldt County Resurface Trauma for Legacy Growers

Local industry members say recent armed inspections were invasive and reminiscent of the war on drugs. The DCC says agency officials were accompanied by one wildlife officer with a holstered gun for protection, and that the farm visits were cordial.

September 6, 2022

Update: Sept. 8, 8:41 p.m. ET: CBT has clarified attributions in this article to better reflect which comments have been provided by the DCC.

In recent weeks, California Department of Cannabis Control (DCC), California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) and State Water Resources Control Board (State Water Board) agents have traveled in unmarked vehicles to licensed cannabis farms in southern Humboldt County to conduct armed inspections, according to agency officials and cannabis cultivators interviewed by Cannabis Business Times.

Many Humboldt County farmers and industry members are shaken. They are calling the inspections traumatizing for compliant cultivators and their families, reminiscent of prohibitionist raids through the project Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP), which began in the 1980s, and Operation Green Sweep raids in the 1990s, KMUD News reported Aug. 26.

The DCC conducted inspections with agents from the State Water Board and an armed CDFW official Aug. 24 and 25 in the Redwood Creek watershed, a DCC spokeswoman said in emailed responses to CBT.

During those inspections, she said, “A total of six environmental scientists took part in these routine inspections. DCC compliance staff were unarmed and one armed CDFW wildlife officer accompanied environmental scientists to ensure safety, as CDFW staff have been shot at it in the past while working in remote areas.”

Michelle Bushnell is supervisor of Humboldt County’s District 2, which includes part of the Redwood Creek watershed, where farmers have been visited by armed CDFW officials. “Outdoor cultivation in the Redwood Creek area—almost all of that is outdoor cultivation and small mom-and-pop farms. Those folks have been here for years and years,” Bushnell told CBT, adding of the recent armed inspections: “It feels very invasive to them, and like they’re outlaws again and they're not trusted.”

The DCC spokeswoman told CBT these were not enforcement operations but rather compliance checks to make sure cannabis farmers are not breaking laws, such as illegally diverting water from watersheds during a time of severe drought.

“During these compliance checks, staff found several sites diverting surface water and were able to talk with licensees about water conservation measures that would bring them back into compliance,” she said.

Nik Erickson, owner of Full Moon Farms in southeastern Humboldt County, told CBT his homestead was inspected by five agents, from the DCC, CDFW and State Water Board. (He estimates this was sometime in late June or early July.) Erickson said the inspection was unannounced, began around 8 a.m. and lasted about six hours. The agencies checked Metrc compliance, water logs, spray logs and more. One agent was a law enforcement officer and carried a pistol in his holster, Erickson said.

Photo courtesy of Full Moon Farms
Nik Erickson

A second-generation cannabis farmer who grew his first plant at age 14, Erickson reflected back on the days of prohibition. “There’s a very real trauma, a very real PTSD from having helicopters hover you, to having your doors kicked in,” he said. “I’ve had guns pointed at my face by law enforcement before, when they come in, they overturn your house. I don't want my kids to go through that.”

Erickson, who worked with his attorney a full year ahead of legalization to take his work above-ground, said he would like to see the agencies taking a more cooperative approach to inspections at cannabis farms in Humbolt County compared to the recent armed inspections.

“I’m always very polite, very courteous, try to show them whatever,” Erickson said. “If they have an issue with something, I'll address it. It’s all you can do. I just think there’s a better way.”

CBT asked the DCC spokeswoman via email when armed CDFW agents began joining the DCC and State Water Board cannabis farm inspections in Humboldt County. She said: “Because compliance staff have felt unsafe at times in the past when working in remote areas, state officials take appropriate precautions to ensure worker safety while helping to build trust with licensees.” (CBT has also filed a public records request at the DCC for more information about armed inspections that have occurred in 2022 and is awaiting a response.)

CBT asked the DCC spokeswoman if state agents will return to Humboldt County cannabis farms with guns. She said agents will continue compliance checks, and those may involve CDFW’s wildlife officers. “This does not mean the intent of these inspections is to arrest individuals or scare licensees,” she said.

Explaining the unmarked cars, the DCC spokeswoman said that with agents traveling from different areas, they checked out unmarked fleet vehicles that they drove to the licensed farms.

The DCC, CDFW and State Water Board held a technical assistance workshop and community presentation Aug. 18, to address environmental concerns amid drought and how growers can remain compliant and protect the Redwood Creek watershed. The DCC also recently accepted applications for Humboldt County cannabis growers to receive more than $12 million in grants, according to the Humboldt County Administrative Office, to “support projects to install water storage and conservation equipment as well as replacing generators with renewable energy systems.”

Though the DCC is not required to notify licensees of inspections ahead of time, the DCC spokeswoman told CBT agencies sent a letter to licensees notifying them of their plans to conduct inspections. She forwarded the below letter attributed to the DCC, CDFW and State Water Board, dated July 29, to CBT. The full letter is included below, and the information about possible inspections is in the last paragraph, bolded by CBT for emphasis:

However, the DCC spokeswoman told CBT“We now understand that many of these letters were not delivered and are reviewing the reasons they may have been returned.”

Of the Aug. 24 and 25 inspections more broadly, the DCC spokeswoman continued in the emailed response: “Staff did not enter anyone’s property unless the landowner/occupant or a representative were present. No arrests were made. Compliance staff provided licensees with technical assistance and offered feedback on changes that needed to be made to come into compliance and support water conservation efforts. 

“All of the encounters were professional and licensees were very cooperative. From our 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. 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.”

When asked about Humboldt County cannabis growers’ opinions of the armed inspections, Humboldt County Growers Alliance (HCGA) co-founder and Executive Director Natalynne DeLapp said Sept. 1: “They’re absolutely flipped.” (HCGA’s membership includes about 30% of the county’s legal growers, DeLapp said.)

With the bottom falling out on pricing for California cannabis, DeLapp said the recent inspections, which she described as “heavy-handed,” are adding to growers’ stresses.

“We’ve already really been concerned that we're going to lose many of our legacy farmers because they're going to quit because of the market, and now, this is just another straw on the camel’s back and I don't know if it's going to be the final one," she said.

John Casali, owner of Huckleberry Hill Farms and a grower in Humboldt County for decades, had not recently received an inspection from any armed agents prior to speaking with CBT Aug. 29.

But Casali said: “The way that community works and what has really brought us so close together is 40 years of the war on drugs really made us rely on one another.”

When he was 20 years old, Casali was arrested for growing the plant. Then, facing 10 years to life as a first-time, nonviolent offender, he was incarcerated in prison for eight years and spent five years on probation.

“So, even after that whole, long journey, I'm now permitted by the county and permitted by the state of California,” he said. “Building a relationship with regulators really went against what most people thought my attitude would be. But I knew how important it was to protect the environment, to protect the wildlife, and I really believed that it could have been the Napa Valley of weed for California.

“But they’ve really broken the trust of the Emerald Triangle's small farmers, and specifically southern Humboldt farmers. I don't know how you repair that at this point.”

Safety on Farm Visits

Addressing agency statements that agents have felt unsafe visiting farms, Bushnell of Humboldt County District 2 said: “All of these farms that they went to—people don't pack guns on those farms—they’re out there in their bathing suits and their shorts doing their job, working.”

Bushnell said she and other county representatives would be willing to visit state agents who feel unsafe. “… [If] they would have reached out to any local official in our county, say the Planning and Building Department or our ag department or myself—I'm the representative for this district—and say, 'Hey, we're going to enter these farms and we're a little bit nervous. Would you go with us?' We are happy to always do that,” Bushnell said. “Or [they can] call our Planning and Building director and talk to the county inspectors.

Lindsey Renner, owner of Native Humboldt Farms in southeastern Humboldt County, began cultivating cannabis in 2008 under Proposition 215 and has since transitioned into the adult-use market. She told CBT Aug. 31 that she had not been visited by armed agents in recent weeks but said she realizes the visits could resurface trauma for some community members. (Renner was honored with a Cannabis Leadership Award from CBT and its Cannabis Conference Aug. 24 in Las Vegas for her work in the industry.)

Renner explained Humboldt County is vast and she feels some parts are unsafe; locals often make sure they don’t enter properties they don’t know. “But then, also, there’s wildlife—there’s mountain lions—no joke,” she said. “You need to be in fear of the wildlife. We had a bear on our property the other day.”

She added: “There definitely are safe spots, as well. But when we're dealing with the DCC and talking about the DCC and trying to communicate with them, I think that we need to be realistic and honest.”

Bushnell provided her take on the idea that there can be a sense of danger involved in farm visits. “I don’t feel that from farmers; I don't feel that in my community—maybe long ago when it was illegal and there were a lot of what they called the 'green rushers' that came in, … but I don't feel that any longer,” she said.

Photo courtesy of Full Moon Farms
Full Moon Farms

For his part, Erickson said agents have nothing to fear at his farm, and with growers receiving low prices for product, they aren’t concerned about potential cannabis thieves like they once were.

“It’s never a good idea to go racing down roads early in the morning six miles off the paved road through people’s gates in unmarked vehicles. … We’re not armed,” he said. “You could tell [there] is not going to be somebody ripping you off in the middle of the day, something like that. The whole idea of the old rip-offs—that’s not really there anymore with the way prices are. People aren’t scouring the hills trying to cut a few tops off your plant at harvest time anymore. So, it’s a whole different mentality.”

Addressing the Environment

Portions of all counties in California are experiencing severe drought or worse, and most of Humboldt County is experiencing drought severity, as of Aug. 30, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. (The far northeast part of the county is experiencing the higher intensity of extreme drought and the far northwest part is experiencing moderate drought.)

State agencies’ ongoing inspections at Humboldt County cannabis farms are meant to address dire environmental conditions in the county’s Redwood Creek Watershed, the DCC spokeswoman told CBT. She sent the following statement in an email:

A representative from the State Water Board emailed a statement to CBT Aug. 30 stating that staff members from that board and the related North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board participated in the Aug. 24 and Aug. 25 inspections in the Redwood Creek Watershed alongside the DCC and CDFW.

The State Water Board spokeswoman shared: “Many fish in this watershed need cold, clear water in the late summer months for survival. Compliance with state laws is critical to protecting our natural resources and, toward that end, we are working proactively with the regulated community.”

Erickson said some people who moved to Humboldt County for the California green rush have not respected the environment and have since left.

“I try to look at it through [the agencies’] lens because we did go through the green rush era,” Erickson said. “So many people came in and abused the land, profited and left when the market crashed.”

Reaching a mutual level of respect with regulators has been a two-way street, Erickson said, relaying that he has had cordial experiences with the DCC and CDFW. In addition, he said representatives from Humboldt County Code Enforcement, who he said have not visited his farm armed, have been great to work with. “They really get it,” Erickson said. “They have a common goal to help legacy farmers succeed.”

Erickson said he wants to work collaboratively with the DCC and that he and CDFW have similar goals as far as protecting the environment. Erickson notes that he has a degree in natural resource management and has worked in environmental compliance with the National Park System and local timber industry. His farm raises money for organizations such as volunteer fire departments and nonprofit Friends of the Lost Coast, a group dedicated to environmental preservation, among other donations. He serves on the HCGA’s policy committee, on the board of directors with the local volunteer fire department, and as a member of the Origins Council, a nonprofit organization focused on economic development in rural California regions where cannabis is produced.

“We’re all the same group of people; we just do different things,” Erickson said. “We’ve got to let the negative parts of the legacy of cannabis-growing in Humboldt County be put in the past. We’ve got to be forging ahead with a different outlook because we are trying really hard to work together as farmers. And we need that cooperation from the state. If they really want us to be here, we need cooperation.”

DeLapp of the HCGA holds a degree in environmental science and public policy and previously worked as the executive director of an environmental organization. She said cannabis regulations around water conservation are strict, given that the industry has been built during periods of drought.

“The reality is, we are employing some of the most incredible environmental conservation practices that [are] greater than any other agricultural practice in California and probably in the nation.” DeLapp said. “And I'm really proud of our farmers and what they have gone through and the care that they're trying to take to protect our water resources.”

Renner, who had cannabis plants confiscated by CAMP years back, stated she has had positive experiences with the DCC while working in regulated cannabis. She said growers or industry representatives should communicate right away with the DCC to address issues in the industry.

“In this scenario, they were dealing with … Redwood Creek, which is a watershed that is extremely affected by the drought right now, and almost abnormally so,” Renner said. “So, they were super concerned and feeling like there were definitely people diverting more water than they should.”

Casali, who is located in the Redwood Creek watershed, acknowledged that not all cannabis farms are model stewards of the environment and that compliance checks are the norm, but that the agencies’ armed approach is not appropriate and erodes trust that he has worked to build with them.

Casali has worked extensively with agencies such as the DCC and CDFW to build trust with the cannabis community over the years. He added that CDFW had put him on a billboard on Highway 101, a major state thoroughfare.

“They’ve been to my farm, they’ve done videos [with me], I’ve got certifications from them,” Casali said. “So, it was my ass on the line. It was me that was … getting questioned [from other farmers], like, ‘You said these people were OK. You said they were trying to work with us.’ It doesn’t take too many of those [armed inspections] before all of a sudden you lose a lot of credibility with your community.”

Casali said he has a simple goal: for Humboldt County cultivators to continue, and thrive, doing what they love.

"All I want—and most of the small farmers in the Emerald Triangle want—is to bring the world some of the best medicine in the world and to be able to share our life's passion with them, because this is the first time in our life that we've been able to share what we love to do and that our parents taught us to do,” he said. “This is our legacy, and we want them to have the opportunity to enjoy what we've produced."