At about 7:30 a.m. last Wednesday, James Joseph Munson was shouting at his two children, asking who had failed to feed the cat, when he saw lights flashing through a window and onto a wall in his Sonoma County home.
Hollering is customary for the 52-year old, who is near-deaf even with his hearing aids in. Odd lights are not.
Cat food can in hand, Munson went to the front door to investigate. Stepping out onto the porch, he saw “twenty to thirty” Sonoma County sheriff’s deputies in camouflage and kevlar, weapons drawn and aimed at his chest and head — the sheriff’s tactical squad, complete with an armored truck. The lights he’d seen flashing through a front window, he told me later, were the red and green laser sights now dancing on his face and chest.
“Aw, shee-it,” he said.
“Hit the ground!” a voice called out.
“Fuck you,” Munson replied, according to his retelling. “I’m not getting on the ground. I have a broken back.”
Instead, Munson put the cat food down and raised his hands. Deputies led him to a storage trailer on the property, where a few young men in their 20s — Munson’s workers, roused from tents set up outside — were already waiting. Soon, they were joined by Munson’s wife, Atsuko, and their daughter and son, ages 11 and 5. They would stay there until about 11 a.m. while deputies searched the hilltop property where Munson and his crew had been tending over 1,000 marijuana plants.
This was not Munson’s first rodeo. He’s been busted eight times before in three different counties, with cultivation charges leveled against him three times in Mendocino County alone.
Each time, law enforcement removed his entire crop — and each time, after Munson dragged into a courtroom the sick and disabled people to whom he gives cannabis away for free, whose medical marijuana recommendations are always posted on-site at the garden in apparent compliance with California medical marijuana law, he’d been acquitted of all charges, according to court records.
This time, with legalization of recreational cannabis for adults supposedly around the corner in California and his last bust five years and two counties ago, Munson thought things would be different. Sure, he had over 1,000 plants — but he also had sixty recommendations, meaning by his interpretation of the law he could have 1,800 plants.
They weren’t. Deputies cut down the entire crop — which, according to the official estimate, clocked in at an eyebrow-raising 1,300 plants and a logic-defying “14,000 pounds” — and placed Munson and eight others under arrest. (Atsuko was let go in order to drive their daughters to school, where they had a presentation to give that day.)
A week later, Munson and his workers are all free. As of press deadline, nobody has been charged with a crime.
That doesn’t matter much to Munson, who lost a year’s worth of work in a morning. And it doesn’t matter to California law enforcement. Large-scale or small, cannabis cultivation is often dealt with by raiding first and asking questions — including whether the garden is legal — later.
Hard data is scant, but anecdotes and interviews with attorneys, growers, and county sheriffs confirm that Munson’s story is a typical one.
“Every year it gets better in terms of law enforcement giving people notice first,” says Melissa Sanchez, a Los Angeles-based attorney who specializes in grower compliance, “but the more negative approach of cutting down first and asking questions later does seems to come in spurts. And that’s really unfortunate. We don’t want that.”
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For someone who can’t hear, Munson loves to talk. A relentless and shameless self-promoter — he produces, among other things, an calendar featuring women in pin-up poses in the garden — Munson’s friends know him by the self-given nickname “Oaky,” a reference to the business he once had selling firewood to homeowners in St. Francis Wood. During our recent talks, he wore a t-shirt with his name on it plus his slogan: “Do some good.” In his case, “good” is giving away loads and loads of marijuana free of charge to sick people. The members of Munson’s collective, whose names and doctor’s notes were posted on his property and are currently in the possession of Sonoma County, are located in a Lake County trailer park, in a San Francisco single-room occupancy hotel, in suburban Palo Alto — wherever a soul who has swung into Munson’s orbit may be found.
Conversations with him can be hours-long affairs. One point leads into an anecdote about a visit to Atsuko’s family in Japan — where he met, in a hilltop Tokyo mansion, the attorneys and activists working to legalize marijuana in that country and sampled their Strawberry Cough. That can lead to how he spent his 20s selling dime bags on Polk Street before Atsuko convinced him to quit drinking.
He delivers this stream in a high-pitched drawl that’s delivered straight through his nose, some of the consequences of the bar fight 25 years ago that broke his jaw and took his hearing.
But when he seizes on something, watch out. The eyes darken, his gaze narrows, and facts come out like bullet points.
“There was no trespassing, no environmental damage, no diverting of water, no trees cut, no neighbors complained,” he said, ticking off the no-no’s that are supposed to draw the attention of police. “I’m not a dumb man — section eleven three sixty two of the state code says that people like me are allowed to grow for people who can’t.”
Under California law, a medical marijuana patient — that is, someone with a note from a physician that says cannabis could help whatever ails them — can have up to six mature, flowering marijuana plants and up to eight ounces of dried herb at any one time.
(Some legal scholars and cannabis advocates argue that these possession limits are no longer valid after 2010 state Supreme Court decision declared them unconstitutional, though the section of law stating six plants and eight ounces is still on the books and is still used as a guideline by law enforcement throughout the state.)
Individual counties, however, are free to set their own rules. In Sonoma County, the allowance is three pounds of pot and 30 plants per patient, a fact confirmed by a 2007 memo circulated among Sonoma County law enforcement leaders. (In Mendocino, briefly, the limit was 99 plants before the federal Justice Department convinced lawmakers to reduce it to 25.)
State law also says that patients can “associate collectively” to grow their preferred medicine. In theory, this is meant to give patients too sick to till the soil their allowance. In practice, this has led to retail businesses — dispensaries are all nonprofit collectives or cooperatives under the law — and massive marijuana plantations visible on Google Earth.
In Mendocino County, lawmakers have set a strict allowance of 25 plants per parcel of land. In Fresno County, cultivation is banned outright.
In Sonoma, county law is silent as to how big is too big.
“It varies case by case and is based on totality of the circumstances at the time of the incident,” said Sgt. Cecile Focha, a spokeswoman for the Sonoma Sheriff’s Office, who also disputes one of Munson’s defenses: trees on the property were clear cut, she says.
That leaves it up to law enforcement on the ground to make the call. And, as Focha added, “Deputies continue to enforce all laws against marijuana in the same manner as prior to the passage of Proposition 215.”
Further, state medical marijuana law is not a “right per se.” It’s what’s called “limited immunity from prosecution” — which means it’s really only any good in a courtroom, not in a pot garden where police have come knocking. “Let the judge sort it out” is a kind of mantra among law enforcement. For growers, it means “winning” nothing more than the freedom to figure out how to make up for
One of Munson’s past foils is Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman, in whose county Munson lived for some time. (The odd fortune of planting a garden next door to one of Allman’s narcotics officers in Redwood Valley, which led to another raid-acquittal cycle, helped send Munson away from Mendocino.)
The way law enforcement sees it, according to Allman, is growers like Munson are playing legal games — and making loads of money while “thumbing their noses at law enforcement.”
In Munson’s case, he was informed that his garden was discovered from the air; the tarpaulin-sized signs reading “50+ RECS” spread over the property did not distract from the hundreds and hundreds of bush-sized plants in planters and 20-gallon pots.
“The moral of the story is, don’t come up on our radar, and we won’t show up on your property,” he says. And having a massive garden — no matter how many recommendations you have — is a great way to be noticed.
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Munson moved to Sonoma County in 2012 after spending four years near Clear Lake. Things were quiet in Lake County — he even made a friend of one of the cops on the county narcotics task force, he says — but the drive to reach collective members in the Bay Area was too far.
To get to Munson’s property, you must drive on Highway 116 past the endless vineyards that are planted right up to the edge of the road, pass through Forestville, and enter a thick forest. You turn at a gravel driveway into a large lumber yard that houses one of the county’s largest firewood businesses, Munson tells me.
From here, you drive past outbuildings, sheds, cabins and trailers — some of whom are occupied by some of the Mexicans who tend the vineyards — and piles of felled oak and pine in various sizes, all nestled in a canyon. Past this, you reach a sand-and-gravel road that leads up a hill. Drive up, past another cabin with tidily-tended plants in boxes out front, and on the top of the hill is a doublewide trailer — the Munson family spread.
From here, aside from the hundreds of empty planters in a southern-facing clearing that held this year’s garden, all you can see are trees. You cannot see the main road or the lumber business below. This means that the only way law enforcement could have known about the grow here was via aerial surveillance, as Munson’s neighbors in the lumber yard and his landlord knew exactly what he was doing — and are entirely sympathetic, as he takes pains to show me.
When I arrive at the compound on a warm sunny morning two days after the raid, the first person I encounter looks like anything but a pot guy. With his flat-top haircut, Tom Selleck mustache, and Carhartt t-shirt tucked into jeans dusty from working outside, Gary Tourady could come from a casting call for “rural Northern California white male, over 50, conservative.” The firewood business here is Tourady’s, and some of the people taken into custody during the Sept. 16 raid were his employees.
The cops, according to all the civilians I talked to, behaved in a way more similar to Ferguson, Mo. than California in the last moments before legalization dawns. To deal with Munson, they brought an armored truck — “an APC,” said Jason, one of Tourady’s workers, who declined to give his last name but gives the military abbreviation for armored personnel carrier (Sonoma County does indeed have such a vehicle for its sheriff’s department, one of the many pieces of surplus military equipment in the hands of local law enforcement thanks to a program called 1033).
Jason, a burly black man and one of the very few nonwhite people around who’s not a native Spanish speaker, was at work, stacking wood, when deputies sprung on him on their way up the hill to pop Munson. According to his telling, two deputies pulled him off of a piece of equipment and put Jason into handcuffs for “questioning” for several hours.
After becoming convinced that Jason had nothing to do with the grow, deputies sprung him at 11 a.m. so he could go back to work and deliver a load of firewood. By then, deputies had detained several other residents of the compound: a woman who’d spent time in a mental institution and lives in a trailer on the property, the two men who lived in the tidy cabin near Munson’s family trailer, and one of the Mexicans living in a structure close to the road.
Standing in the morning sun with a few of Munson’s other neighbors, Tourady says he knew exactly what Munson was doing up on the hill, and had been doing for the past four years. As far as Tourady knew, Munson’s operation was above board.
The other neighbors — some of whom deputies brought into the storage container for questioning along with Munson, his family, and his crew — are more militant. “I told them [the deputies], ‘That’s a legal marijuana grow,’” says one, a military veteran who also asked not to have his name printed. Behind dark aviator-style sunglasses, he appears to seethe. “That was a legal cannabis garden.”
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Ten months out of the year, a pot grower might be able to hope for a visit from law enforcement that does not involve a clear-cut.
In Mendocino, according to Allman, sheriff’s deputies do indeed perform “compliance checks” — visiting a property where marijuana is cultivated to verify that the operation is legal, and “red-tagging” excess plants with the instruction to remove them within 14 days or suffer consequences — in the months between November and August.
In September and October, however — during harvest time — deputies are so busy with weed that there’s no time to bother with checking paperwork, according to the sheriff. “In October, our number one call for service is the smell of marijuana,” Allman says. “More than domestic violence, more than meth. We’re the county of Mendocino, not the county of marijuana.”
Even then, cops say that raids are prioritized. The sins that trigger a raid, Allman says, ticking off a list he’s repeated hundreds of times before, are if a grow is on public land, trespassing on private land, committing an environmental crime like stealing water or grading or logging, or if a grow is “commercial.” As for what constitutes a commercial grow? “It’s not always size,” he says, but if you have 200 plants instead of 25, chances are “you’re a flat-out crook,” Allman told me, and you won’t have the luxury of removing your 175 crappiest plants while police politely watch.
The real message here is that there is no distinction is drawn between a farmer growing for the medical marketplaces in San Francisco and Los Angeles — where the average eighth of an ounce of California outdoor will fetch $40 retail on a good day — and criminal entrepreneurs shipping pounds out of state. Too big is too big, no matter what the purpose.
But even a legal garden can be eradicated without warning — and without a search warrant. In 2014, growers in Potter Valley and surrounding areas told wild-sounding stories of armed men dropping from black helicopters, no badges visible, who cut down patches and left. Growers became so alarmed that Allman called a public meeting, in which he explained that the men were members of the County of Mendocino Marijuana Enforcement Team — COMMET — and were legally conducting warrantless raids under the “open fields” doctrine. Anything outside of the “curtilage,” or cultivated area, of a home is not subject to Fourth Amendment restrictions on unreasonable search and seizure and can thus be eradicated without a warrant.
Prior to the raid, Munson says he had just one encounter with law enforcement in Sonoma County — who, he says, were invited to the property for a compliance check but never came.
A few twists of the Russian River down from Forestville is the hamlet of Monte Rio, most famous for the annual encampment of the capital class in Bohemian Grove on its outskirts. The first year Munson grew on top of the hill near Pocket Canyon, he says, one of his workers borrowed a four-wheeler in order to pay a visit to a girlfriend. He got lost and ended up stopped by Bohemian Grove security, who called in the deputies. The waylaid grower gave deputies Munson’s information and the information of Gordon Evans, Munson’s landlord.
They never called to visit, but that was how, Munson is certain, deputies knew that there was weed up on the hill.
“All of a sudden, four years later, with notification of what I’m doing pointed at the sky, the hammer comes down,” he says, noting, without irony, that one of the deputies present for the raid told him that the garden had been getting bigger.
Munson was scheduled to appear in court Sept. 21, less than a week after his raid. Upon arrival in court in Santa Rosa with Ukiah-based attorney Keith Faulder, Munson was informed that his appearance was postponed until Nov. 17.
In a very real way, Munson hopes he gets charged. “Then I get to drag everyone into fucking court — in wheelchairs, dying, everything,” he says, describing the routine that, with Faulder, a former Mendocino County district attorney, won a series of acquittals. “And then I’m going to sue Sonoma County for millions of dollars.”
In the meantime, deputies have his ID — and they have the IDs of his workers, some of whom are from the East Coast, none of whom can board a plane, cash a check, or hope to get a straight job until the case sorts itself out.
Munson says his workers were paid in product: three ounces, untrimmed, per day of work, to be collected at the end of the season. They’re now biding their time on his property, with very little to do at what should be the busiest time of the year.
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Marijuana is California’s most valuable cash crop. Legal and illegal, the state’s weed industry could be worth as much as $16 billion, according to an estimate from a Sonoma State economist — bigger than wine and almonds put together.
If Munson is making money off of his many grows, it has never been proven. It also doesn’t show — anywhere. Some members of Munson’s collective do kick in cash to pay for supplies like soil and seed, but the family’s bills — rent, food, etc. — comes from Atsuko’s parents in Japan. The family’s most expensive possession is a Tundra pickup truck, Munson says. (They do have a used Jaguar, but it’s a decade old and Blue Books for $12,000.)
Pressing this point — and asking too many questions about money, or doubting the official story that Munson is Northern California’s most munificent marijuana grower — is one of his triggers.
“Nobody fucking gets it,” he explodes. “Everyone thinks there’s an angle. There is no fucking angle. Everyone thinks that if you’re growing pot that there’s gotta be a huge fucking bank account. ‘Where are your Ferraris?’ There are no fucking Ferraris.
“I don’t know if I’m stupid, or if I just want to help people, or if I’m a horrible fucking businessman. That Tundra is the most expensive thing I own, aside from some rocks and some fucking dirt bikes that I bought my kids.”
In less than eighteen months, activity like Munson’s — and the ability to turn a profit on the marijuana trade — will both become legal, regardless of what happens with recreational marijuana at the ballot. A package of bills sent to Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk by the Legislature in September would allow activity like Munson’s to be licensed, with profit-making “commercial cannabis activity” expressly allowed. Small grows of up to five patients would need no licensed; large-scale farms would be limited, but allowed.
It’s clear one side is winning the war on marijuana. This becomes more obvious walking around Munson’s property, 48 hours after the raid, where some of the finer, finishing touches can still be seen.
We pass by the heavy-duty truck, left parked directly on top of a water line. If the weight of the truck put a crack in the rubber line, it’s now useless. Near the storage trailer where Munson and his family were stowed lies the trash from three or four greasy take-out bags — “the cops’ lunches,” Munson says. On the hillside behind a trailer used by one of Munson’s workers, a mattress lies where the deputies threw it out of the trailer’s side door.
Wandering around the yard, we encounter Munson’s landlord Evans, busy digging a trench for another water line connected to a tank up on a hill.
“Hey, Gordon,” Munson said. “I think next year I’m gonna do a huge vegetable garden,” he says.
“That’d be great, Joe,” Evans replied.
(An earlier version of this story appeared in the 9/24 issue of SF Weekly.)