The Mendo Pot Chronicles
by Mark Scaramella, October 3, 2007
A cautionary tale, versions of which have happened here, and will continue to happen here.
On January 9th of this year, Rex Farrance, 59, a long-time technical editor of PC World Magazine, was murdered in a home invasion robbery. Farrance, at the apparent behest of his son, had a large indoor grow going in his home in Pittsburg in the East Bay. Last week three men, Tremaine Amos, 25, of Bay Point, and Darryl Hudson and Montrell Hall, both 23 and both of Pittsburg, were charged with Farrance's murder, and the associated robbery and burglary.
According to the Chronicle's report on the filing of charges, Farrance's family believes the killers decided to target the home after learning from a friend of Farrance's son that marijuana was being grown in the home and that there was lots of cash on the premises. Farrance's son, Sterling Farrance, told authorities that his father let him grow medical marijuana, and that the entire operation was legal, not that the alleged invaders cared whether it was legal or not. Contra Costa County Prosecutor Harold Jewett told the Chronicle that he didn't want to discuss why he thought Farrance was killed. "I'm not going to get into the detail surrounding why the defendants did what they did or exactly what they did," Jewett said, before adding, "Without regard to the legality of the extensive marijuana-growing operation that was taking place in the residence, we regard Mr. Farrance as an innocent victim in this case."
Of course, Mr. Farrance was an innocent victim. But there's more to the story than that, and it only took a few minutes of on-line searching to find the police theory of the case, written, apparently, by Pittsburg (California) Police inspector John Conaty and posted on the California Police Chief's Association's website:
"On Tuesday, January 9, 2007 just after 9:00pm, 59-year old Rex Farrance was at his home on Argosy Court in Pittsburg, CA working on his computer while his wife of 16 years, Lenore Vantosh, was asleep in their bedroom. Four masked men, at least one of them armed with a .22 caliber revolver, kicked in their front door, and demanded money. Rex ran to his room in an apparent effort to alert his wife of the robbery and retrieve his personal handgun. He was confronted by the intruders in his bedroom and shot once in the chest. He died an hour later at a local hospital. Rex and his wife had lived on Argosy Court for several years and were considered polite and friendly, but somewhat private, according to their neighbors. They had two adult children; their 19 year-old son Sterling maintained a room at the house, but usually stayed with his girlfriend in a neighboring city. Rex was a well-respected senior editor for PC World Magazine. In the Farrance home officers found 109 marijuana plants in different stages of cultivation, 3.7 pounds of cultivated marijuana (mainly consisting of dried stems, branches and leaves), two digital scales, and packaging commonly associated with marijuana sales. Rex and Sterling were heavily involved in marijuana cultivation."
"In an interview with Sterling, he asserted the marijuana cultivation and consumption were legal under the guidelines of the California Compassionate Use Act (Proposition 215) that was passed by California voters on November 6, 1996. We believe the intruders in this violent home-invasion robbery and murder knew about the marijuana cultivation operation and assumed marijuana and money would be at the house. We have confirmed that a relatively small amount of money (less than $500) and several handguns were taken. [Mr. Farrance was a hunter.] We suspect marijuana was also taken, although we have not been able to confirm this because Lenore did not know exactly how much marijuana was on hand at the home. Neither Rex nor Lenore had a prescription to use marijuana. Rex had smoked some marijuana two days prior to his murder on his birthday, but prior to that hadn't smoked in years. Lenore did regularly smoke marijuana to relieve pain, but was afraid that her job as a registered nurse might be in jeopardy if she got a prescription to use marijuana. Sterling did have a prescription to use marijuana for medicinal purposes. He obtained it from a medical doctor at Norcal Healthcare System in Oakland, CA. He had been in a vehicle collision in 2005, which he claimed resulted in residual back pain. He also claimed to have suffered from migraine and tension headaches his entire life so he obtained the prescription which allowed him to become a card-carrying member of the Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative; they also issued him a 'Grower's Certificate.'"
"Prior to getting a prescription for marijuana, Sterling did smoke marijuana on occasion to help alleviate his back pain and chronic headaches. When Sterling purchases marijuana from the cooperatives, he usually goes to the cooperative in Richmond, CA because they are the cheapest. He can buy an eighth of an ounce for $40 in Richmond, as opposed to $60 from the cooperative in Pacheco, CA. He openly suggests that the Pacheco Cooperative is 'there just to take advantage of the law and make money.' Rex knew Sterling used marijuana for medicinal purposes and according to Sterling, Rex came up with the idea to grow marijuana so Sterling would not have to spend so much money buying the marijuana at the Cannabis Cooperatives. Rex purchased the necessary equipment to cultivate the marijuana (grow lights, fertilizer, etc...), while Sterling purchased marijuana clones (a branch from a live plant that can be placed in a rooting solution and soil, eventually rooting into a plant.) Sterling admitted that he and his father knowingly grew more plants than they were allowed (12 immature or 6 mature per qualified individual in Contra Costa County) because they wanted to pick the 'best' plants to harvest. They would discard the rest."
"They clearly had a sophisticated cultivation operation that included a High Pressure Sodium light, fluorescent lights, Mylar reflective sheets, premixed chemical solutions to lower the Ph levels in the local water supply, and a ventilation system including remote electrical ballast. Sterling claimed he learned about marijuana cultivation strategies by talking with people at the Cannabis Cooperatives. Sterling also said he and Rex purposely grew most of the marijuana in the attic as a security measure to hide the operation from anyone of 'questionable nature.' Sterling claimed some of the plants belonged to another friend who also had a 'grower's license,' but the friend later denied this and admitted that he and Sterling had conspired to tell this story because Sterling and his father had more plants than they were allowed. The friend, who also has a prescription to use marijuana, occasionally helped manicure the plants, in turn receiving about 12% of the finished product. Sterling would receive about 20% and Rex would keep the rest. The friend also asserted that Sterling got a prescription to smoke marijuana to 'get stoned legally, and to just get high.' The friend openly admitted that Sterling shares his marijuana with other friends who do not have a prescription but just want to 'get high.' Sterling adamantly denied he or his father sold marijuana to 'people on the streets, only to other people with medical marijuana cards, and occasionally to friends.' Sterling never registered with the State Department of Health Services, as he can voluntarily do pursuant to SB 420 because he had never heard about the registration program."
High Times Magazine added the following horrific detail: After the intruders entered the Farrance bedroom "the robbers then struck Mrs. Vantosh-Farrance with a gun and fatally shot Farrance in the chest. 'He came bursting in the room,' Vantosh-Farrance said of her husband as he ran from the intruders. 'I said, "What's going on?" He said, "We're being broken into".' Vantosh-Farrance said she barely had time to react before the men went after her. 'Then they came for me, started screaming at me and pulling at me to get out of bed and "find the money, b****." They kept saying that to me, and then I felt a whack on my head,' Vantosh-Farrance said."
One on-line comment about the case asked, "How can a 19-year-old minor, who is prohibited from imbibing in alcohol, obtain a license to farm, harvest, process, package, distribute and use marijuana? Since a person has to be 21 years old to drink a beer, it would seem prudent to have an age requirement associated with being a big-time medical dope dealer."
If urban pot dispensaries are selling their medicine for $40-$60 per ounce, that's $5120/pound @$40/eighth, and $7680/pound @ $60/eighth. Locally, we understand the wholesale marijuana is selling for $2500-$3000 a pound, which is a pretty sweet markup by any measure when it reaches buyers at $40 to $60 an ounce. And it's all tax free. You can make even more if you can grow and process your own medical pot and sell it for at least $40 per ounce, and if you don't have to pay the black market $2500-$3000 per pound, it wouldn't take long to recover your modest growing costs, would it?
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The minutes of Mendo's most recent Criminal Justice Committee meeting predictably add to the existing confusion of pot policy, and put the cart miles ahead of the horse. Some of the issues piled on to the ever-growing agenda included: departmental fees and procedures; landlord and renter rights and obligations regarding cultivation and/or disclosure; enforcement procedures and availability of enforcement personnel; confidentiality rights of growers, patients, and renters... Let's stop here for a moment and remember that medical pot is technically medicine and therefore probably falls under the Health Information Protection Act. Additionally, confidentiality would keep robbers and home invaders from looking up the names and addresses of prospective targets. But if the information is considered confidential, how will neighbors know if grows are legal? And so on through the infinite, and infinitely premature policy possibilities.
Supervisor Mike Delbar said he was worried about the use of the term "legal parcel" and also about "sensitive" locations. Delbar wanted to know how renters would get documentation from landlords acknowledging cultivation on their property, how nuisance abatement would be enforced, and how the plant count would apply to a single legal parcel that is zoned for multiple residences.
Delbar didn't mention it, but if medical marijuana growing is considered agriculture, and weed is certainly more ag-like than industrial-scale wine making, does that mean that it falls under the Mendo's "right to farm" rule, which generally means that ag activity is exempt from nuisance rules?
Supervisor John Pinches said that the current language in the draft dispensary ordinance would force both the Laytonville and Fort Bragg dispensaries to close if they are not "grandfathered-in." Pinches thought that a requirement for each dispensary to obtain a use permit would address issues such as location, hours, size, parking, and security on a more individualized case-by-case basis.
If the dispensary or cultivation ordinances have to address parking then we're really in trouble. Do pot patients qualify as handicapped for the purposes of parking space allocations? We have 19 handicapped parking spaces at the Boonville Fairgrounds, more spaces than are allotted by San Francisco General Hospital's emergency room. We'd need 119 handicapped parking spots in Boonville alone if the 215 brigades were entitled to handicapped parking slots.
Committee Chair/Supervisor Jim Wattenburger brought up the issue (reported here last week) of pot growing being a major fire hazard, pointing out that he has a proposal from a local firefighter which would require a $250 per plant administrative fee. According to Wattenburger's problematical pot math if 25% of growers declared, that might mean up to 1.8 million plants with fee collections of over $62 million. Yeah, right, dude, you'll get every penny, no problem. And balance the budget to boot.
County Counsel Jeanine Nadel may have ensured that nothing remotely resembling reasonable pot regulation is ever produced in Mendocino County. Nadel recommended that Mendo's Planning and Building Services be consulted regarding establishing "reasonable and enforceable provisions within the proposed ordinances."
Planning and Building, readers may recall, is the same department which, after seven years of debate alternating between weirdly contentious and tediously bizarre, came up with such an unwieldy and unmanageable grading ordinance proposal that nobody liked that Mendo became the only county in the state without a grading ordinance. Now, it's starting to sound like the same thing's going to happen with medical pot. Meanwhile, it'll be every patient for himself out there in the wild, wild Mondo-Mendo of pot growers, pot cops, pot thieves, and home invasion punks.
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A pot raider with the Mendocino COMMET team told us last week that while on a bust of a large-scale Mexican Cartel grow in Potter Valley last month cops found a shed in the middle of several large gardens. As officers approached the shack, they encountered four snarling pit bulls. The dogs were only briefly stymied by the pepper spray shot straight into their eyes. (Urban cops typically shoot hostile dogs out of hand. Mellow Mendo prefers to subdue them.) Unable to get past the dogs, and loathe to shoot them, the cops called in an animal control specialist to snare the animals during the brief moments the dogs were distracted by the spray. While the dogs were fending off Animal Control's sprays and snares the cops entered the shed where they found dozens of pounds of dried, processed marijuana, all in neat packages, and one young Mexican who seemed to be the only processing worker on hand. He was arrested on the spot, but it was obvious a number of other persons had been involved in the operation.
Also discovered in the shed was what one officer described as a "Trimpro Trimmer," a fancy commercial contraption which uses a fine mesh screen, forced air and rotating fan-like knife blades to (coarsely) trim the marijuana to bud size, leaving a garbage bag full of leaves and marijuana dust in a catch bag at the bottom of the device. Trimpro Trimmers sell for about $2,000.