Dining With The Pot People
by Christina Aanestad, December 23, 2010
Pot growers and sheriff deputies broke bread together in Ukiah recently at an unprecedented event: a holiday party hosted by Julia Carrera, one of Mendocino County's medical marijuana inspectors. A grower in a beanie and a hooded sweatshirt, talked shop with Sheriff Sergeant Randy Johnson, who was decked out in a pinstriped shirt and a leather vest.
“It's a shift that we're still getting used to,” Shirley Johnson, Randy's wife, told me at the dinner table, referring to the recent partnership between marijuana growers and the sheriff's office. Once upon a time sheriff deputies were arresting marijuana growers, now some of them are sitting together at the dinner table. The cause? Certainly not holiday cheer. Blame Mendocino County's ground breaking 9.31 ordinance.
Under the County's 9.31 ordinance, medical marijuana growers can register for a County program with the Sheriff's office that allows them to grow up to 99 plants with a permit from local law enforcement. The fees go to the Sheriff’s office, at a time when Sheriff deputies are facing layoffs. At nearly $6,000 in registration fees, 100 people could bring in $600,000 to the county's coffers. And, it could keep local law enforcement off small growers backs.
“It's nice to have the Sheriff on your side," said Bode Mark, a Yorkville resident and medical marijuana farmer. According to Mark, security concerns moved him to register with the newly created program. Under the new program, if a crime happens in a registered grower’s home, they can feel confident in contacting local law enforcement about it; meanwhile, unregistered growers are still subject to law enforcement raids. Depending on how one looks at it, the county's new 9.31 ordinance is a kind of stay out of jail tax. To others, it’s a way to give back to the community.
After registering, growers choose between three different, independent medical marijuana inspectors who give three to four inspections to the farmer’s gardens per growing cycle (or more if compliance is a challenge) to ensure the operations are within the program’s guidelines. There are dozens of guidelines to follow, making some growers critical of the program. Inspectors hope to attract those who meet the requirements into the program. Julia Carrera is one of the inspectors. To celebrate the groundbreaking project, she honored the local sheriffs and marijuana farmers alike at the Ukiah Art Center — a private function with food, live music and libations.
“I'm honoring and expressing gratitude for the initial permit holders who are brave enough to step forward into a frontier that's never been explored before,” said Carrera. At the dinner table, nearly 30 people toasted their forward thinking collaboration.
The program’s author, Mendocino County 2nd District Supervisor John McCowen was one of the attendees. An outspoken critic of the marijuana industry, McCowen said he drafted the program to ensure his concerns were redressed by marijuana growers. “If they can show they are not damaging the environment and creating a public problem, then we can save money from bringing them into the court system — and focus on doing something proactive,” he said. So far, the program is a win-win for all its participants.
But, Mendocino County's 9.31 ordinance received public criticism after the DEA and Sheriff’s deputies raided its first registrant, Joy Greenfield from Covelo. Since that time, the program’s architects have worked to iron out problems like the DEA's bust on Greenfield's medical marijuana grow. Carrera, the bridge between growers and Sheriff deputies, told me so far her clients have been protected by the new regulation. She said that one of her clients was let go after being pulled over by local law enforcement.
“He had under an ounce of marijuana and $12,000. He called me, I called Sheriff Randy Johnson, who realized he was a permit holder and [the arresting officer] was told to let him go. That's the law,” recalled Carrera.
Carrera who runs an alternative health clinic in Ukiah, said her interest in the program is in healing her community, supporting her practice and bringing people together. And she's proven to have an uncanny ability to do just that. “I want to make it work,” she said, “This is my community, they all are my neighbors and the sheriffs are a group very similar to the farmers in their brotherhood in taking care of one another.”
Sonoma County attorney Ken Beyries also attended the event. Beyries told me he helped draft Sonoma County's medical marijuana ordinance. “We're working on Lake County next,” he said over a glass of champagne and sparkling apple cider. “We want them to allow up to 50 plants,” he explained. Beyries said he supports Mendocino County's program, and he has given his clients the ok to register with it. A few of them are working with Carrera and also attended the event.
Growers from as far as Covelo and Laytonville made the trek to celebrate a historic collaboration in Mendocino County. With under a dozen clients registered, Carrera has her work cut out. Making peace between growers and law enforcement may take some time. But some people are ready for the shift. “We're making progress with legal marijuana growers and law enforcement and that's important,” Seargant Johnson said as I caught him leaving the night's festivities; he is the sergeant in charge of the program.
While critics like MMMAB, the Mendocino Medical Marijuana Advisory Board contend the program is unconstitutional, growers and law enforcement alike are willing to move beyond the war zone and find middle ground. That is progress to people like Julie Carrera.
“I'm trying to help our community shift the economic struggles it’s under, as well as create a stronger community,” she said. With growers and deputies sitting at the dinner table, that just might happen.