(“Persecuted by Thieves” – Rod and the Ideals)
(photos featured here are all screenshots from a public records request of an abatement hearing order, poorly cropped and redacted)
“One has not only a legal but moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws,” Martin Luther King Jr.
I have been reporting on the unfolding of the legalization of cannabis in Humboldt County for years. Topics ranging from the County’s illegal rewriting our cannabis tax law (Measure S), to the permit process that serves less than 10% of an entire industry, and the subsequent notices to abate the alleged nuisance of cannabis cultivation for the non-permitted at least 90% of farmers. In the process I have heard Planning and Building Director John Ford and District 2 (Southern Humboldt) Supervisor Estelle Fennel say many things that are false, misleading, completely inconsistent with the law and what’s happening as a direct result of their policies. However my most recent records request findings take the prize.
Do you recall Humboldt County claim that they were not going after your unpermitted homes, your vegetable gardens, your compost toilets, your soil, or people living in mobile homes? Remember how the county said they were not putting liens on properties for cultivating a plant? I do, and I specifically remember the county assuring residents that they could be trusted to not use cultivation applications as evidence to charge people with later. Humboldt County lied on all counts.
Over 1200 notices to abatement the alleged nuisance of cultivating cannabis have been sent by the Planning and Building Department (PBD) with the support of the majority of our County’s Supervisors. Additionally about 500 abatement warning letters were sent in the winter of 2019 with the threat of an abatement next season, the victims include people who were amputees, war veterans, single mothers and the disabled with only 6 plants each, those less than a 10×10 space and even several folks who were not cultivating cannabis at all.
One longtime local property owner and human rights advocate Dotty Russell spoke out at a recent town hall meeting with Fennel and Ford about her tenant who was not growing cannabis at all who received an abatement. He had a legitimate organic vegetable farm business and had receipts to prove he sold his produce to local restaurants. The PBD demanded that he stop, remove all the soil and raised beds once used to grow them in. Consequentially he had to close his business.
There is no indication that the PBD’s year-round, 40 abatement letter average a week is letting up anytime soon. The PBD and Supervisors have stated that it is their goal to end all non-permitted cultivation and they’ve only hit about 1200 of at least 15000 farms county-wide (subtract the approximately 1250 permitted/in process). In the abatement program’s inception Ford claimed they were going after the most egregious grows, until he discovered the larger grows generally had permits. For the last 3 years Ma and Pa have been hit the hardest. Ford even inaccurately told residents that prop 215 no longer allows them to cultivate for their medical needs, consequentially several 215 holders have had to battle abatements regardless of doctor’s recommendations.
Typically after you receive a notice to abate cannabis letter you either get heavily pressured by the PBD into signing away all of your rights via a compliance letter, that comes along with an average of a 30k fine OR you stand up and fight in an abatement hearing, hopefully with a lawyer. Abatement hearings are heard by a judge via satellite, which crashes a lot along with your right to due process. This judge is a member of an LLP, a group of lawyers essentially, who were hired by Humboldt County. It seems obvious that these judges have an inherent bias based on keeping their job, but the judges have denied several lawyer’s requests to recuse themselves. Luckily, these abatement hearing decisions can later be appealed and fought in a traditional court, which has yet to happen.
So far there have only been a few handfuls of cannabis related abatement hearings in Humboldt scattered over a couple years, most are still in process. Recipients are often stuck in limbo for years before the hearing is scheduled, fearing fines of at least 10k daily for each allegation. Depending on the charges, some are faced at the hearing with fines totaling around half a million. These fines rack up daily and the county’s delay in scheduling them counts against the property owners, not the county. The time intensive aspect of the abatement programs seems a clever money making tactic. Not only is it more profitable to the county the longer they drag it out including more cost effective staff-wise, it also isolates individual victim after victim. Which makes it less likely that anyone notices to rise up against the dire injustices happening throughout the county. The impacts of these policies are huge, yet it’s happening behind closed doors, with next-to-no media coverage.
According to public records request findings from the PBD (20-2) abatement hearing decision order, here are examples of low-end fines placed on one property owner after his initial abatement hearing. It does not appear that this particular abatement recipient had a lawyer to represent him at the hearing.
Junk or inoperable vehicles final fine $1,850 ($50/day for 37 days).
Compost toilets aka unapproved sewage disposal system HCC section 611-3, after toilet filled in the final fine amounted to $3,700 ($100 per day for 37 days).
Having plastic pots in a stack, or a car seat removed from the car in this case, aka “Improper Storage and Removal of Solid waste” HCC section 521-4 and fines amount to $9,250 ($250 for 37 days).
Greenhouses / unpermitted homes came to a total fine of $18,500 ($500 per day for 37 days).
Using an RV as a residence on your own land. This particular order was dismissed it appears because the person who once lived here was forced out.
Having a rainwater catchment pond, aka grading without a permit, HCC Section 331-14 total fine $18,500 ($500/day for 37 days).
Growing a plant without a permit aka “violation of Commercial Medical MJ ordinance HCC Section 331-14” total fine $37,000 (1,000/day for 37 days).
Notice that growing a plant is the most penalizing fine in this decision order.
The overarching theme in these hearing decisions is that living off the land or cultivating anything in Southern Humboldt is a liability in the hundreds of thousands. The ongoing assumption is that the government knows what is best for the environment, and your knowledge of living off the land is not adequate unless you buy a permit and then it’s all totally acceptable. The county keeps claiming legalization helps the environment, yet they are still not testing this theory in anyway. From streams to land to soil, the county hasn’t a clue of any impact to the environment resulting from legalization. This makes one wonder, if they do not care about the environment to determin if these regulations are helping it, what is the point?
I will start my analysis by saying that grading is not ideal obviously. I personally have a shovel-only policy when I work with the earth and know I am not alone. However the charge is NOT for the grading itself, that’s totally legal and not harmful according to Humbodlt County. It’s “grading without a permit” that is the issue. Just like with permitted cannabis cultivation, paying for a piece of paper to permit grading or cultivation does not change the environmental impact (besides encouraging mega-monoculture-growing with higher costs). It’s a matter of county greed and criminalizing people who do not have money, patience for permits, or awareness of the law.
The issue I have with calling stacked plastic pots “solid waste” and worthy of a $9,250 fine is two fold. Can you imagine if everyone with a stacked planter pots in their yard got a $9,250 fine? This is standard gardening practice, when not in use they sit stacked for future use. Secondly, there is no actual harm in having pots to grow things in, whatever that might be. This decision orders someone to move containers used to grow food/medicine, in a large pile of trash in a dump far away in order to “protect the environment.” How is this helping the environment if these plastic pots could be instead reused? Recycle, reduce, REUSE.
This particular county code is meant to charge people for harmful chemicals being leached into streams (hence the steep price tag), not for plastic pots. We all hear about this “Rodenticide (etc.) running into streams from illegal cultivation sites.” This narrative is more often propaganda that enables violent attacks on our rights. Not for harmful chemicals as claimed, but for stacked plastic pots they call “improper storage of solid waste.” The county apparently wants all items on your property in watertight containers, which is fine, except that they are often also made of plastic. What is the difference to the environment if water runs off a plastic tote full of plastic pots or a plastic pot, but the increased plastic use?
The county claims immense environmental damage is happening and so justifies these abatements and excessive fines, but most of the time it’s really just standard off grid living that’s being criminalized here. Photographed in this particular decision order as evidence, is a cleaned plastic recycling run in the bed of a newer truck, it’s organized, ready to be driven away and recycled. When you live off grid it is beyond common to gather your recycling and trash for weekly or monthly dump runs- depending on use.
The issue I have with the junk car accusation is four-fold. Have you ever heard of planned obsolescence? These cars are not built to last and none of these property owners were negligent in creating an auto manufacturing system of total waste and pollution. They paid with their tax dollars to save these industries over a decade ago, and now they are paying royally on the back end for their inefficiency. Speaking of inefficiency, have you seen the roads in Humboldt County? Many people have their cars turned into junk just from driving on them. Ask any local mechanic the cars are horrendous in Humboldt County directly resulting from road conditions. Did you know that the amount of resources it takes to produce brand new car, far exceeds the resources it consumes in its entire life? So instead of buying a brand new hybrid or SUV (like the cops and many government employees do), try repairing an old car if you want to help the environment.
We also know how difficult it is to accomplish anything at the DMV, yet if you have an unregistered car on your property, even a registered one that the county deems junk, you get charged $3,700? No wonder people light cars on fire in the hills so much, they are a total liability and difficult to deal with. The county is criminalizing people for having older cars on their property, perhaps that came with the land when purchased, or cars that they cannot afford to dispose of. Disposing of a legitimate junk car (in less than ten days) also requires being the registered owner (or a property owner, and it takes more than 10 days). Again just moving something allegedly harmful to a bigger pile of trash farther away doesn’t accomplish anything for the environment. Many of the vehicles the county calls junk which are pictured on this abated property, have newer paint jobs and look rather nice to me. One of the vehicles appears to be someone’s home. Which is another issue I have with these allegations.
We know housing, especially affordable and/or quality housing, is hard to find in Humboldt. As a consequence of the lack of affordable housing coupled with immense work opportunities (not found in many parts of this country other than extractive industry towns), folks have made due with renting out rvs and other non-permanent structures, sometimes seasonally.
These County arguments are very ironic because in many instances people are being further victimized by ongoing County neglect and negligence. Some abatement recipients who endured their first hearing recently were even victims of trespass grows that the county refused to resolve after many attempts in calling the sheriffs to cut the plants.
Another interesting aspect of this particular hearing decision is that when you look at the greenhouses in question, you will see photos that look identical to any permitted farm and often right next door to them. In one case some structures including the notably tidy home, were on the property before owner purchased it.
The greenhouses were disassembled but still received a fine of $18,500. At least one of the greenhouses in question was high end, a permanent wooden structure, the sort of greenhouse that any farmer would be thrilled to utilize.
There is no harm caused by these structures on property, but again a potential benefit to the environment in cultivating for you’re your own needs. It’s as if the County is trying to out-hippie the hippies, calling general off-grid living and cultivating a plant, a Category 4 Violation that has, “a significant and/or substantial impact on the health, safety, comfort and/or general welfare of the public. (Ord. 2576 sec 5, 6/26/17),” all under the legalization of a plant that should have never been illegal.
Local advocate and Criminal Defense Attorney, Eugene Denson who specializes in Cannabis-related cases including for abatements argues in one of his hearing closing statements,
“The best indication of the fines the people of California felt were appropriate for unlicensed cannabis cultivation are found in Proposition 64, a ballot initiative passed in November 2016 and codified in part in Health and Safety Code 11358 (c):
“Every person 18 years of age or over who plants, cultivates, harvests, dries, or processes more than 6 living cannabis plants shall be punished by imprisonment in a county jail for not more than 6 months, or by a fine of not more than $500, or by both such fine and imprisonment.”
Possession of cannabis for sale, HS 11359, carries the same punishment. Proposition 64 passed by about 57% of the vote. The people of California do not consider unlicensed cultivation more than a minor misdemeanor…The harm from the greenhouses is negligible. Had the County exemption fees been paid they would have come to under $1000. There is no allegation that they present any danger to anyone in any way. These are insubstantial buildings on one floor. The Building inspector would have simply checked the setbacks and exempted them had he seen them…
The cultivation of marijuana described here is in no way a cause of a either a significant or substantial impact on the health, safety, comfort, and/or general welfare of the public. The Board of Supervisors have broad powers to pass ordinances regarding land use, but they do not have the power to create their own facts.
The County has licensed perhaps 1400 people to cultivate commercial cannabis and solicits more. Acres and acres of licensed cultivation of cannabis is occurring throughout the unincorporated parts of the county. Assuming that the county would not issue permits for cannabis which has these awful effects, they must be saying that lacking a permit is the cause of the impacts. There is no physical difference between permitted and unpermitted cannabis.
The People of the State of California have made their opinion on the dangers of cannabis quite clear by legalizing it. They are aware that some people will cultivate without paperwork and have set criminal penalties for such cultivation. These penalties do not satisfy the bureaucrats so they have concocted these Administrative regulations and fines in an end-run around the will of the voters. Unpermitted cultivation is a police matter, not a land use matter, and passing laws with assertions of “alternate facts” is not good governance.”
These threats of hundreds of thousands in fines, or tens of thousands a day, depend on culpability (also actual harm, ability to pay and similar fines) in order to justify their excessiveness. The people who actually did the grading, those who grew cannabis, or who used these compost toilets are not questioned, not the county for allowing “harm” caused by the drug war nope, just the property owners.
In one abatement hearing decision order there are 19 costly demands alongside difficult deadlines such as, hire an engineer for several thousand within 8 weeks (engineers are VERY busy- good luck!), pay many more thousands for a heavy equipment operator to fill in a rain water catchment pond/un-grade (the cost of a new water source and permits if you live there), remove all “junk” vehicles and pay for their disposal within a month, get a permit for your house within 6 months, fill in compost toilet in 30 days (buy your helpers a shovel I guess?), remove plastic growing containers currently in a neat pile to the dump in a week, remove structures and soil within a month, and more.
None of these abatement decisions that I have seen have evidence of soil sample analysis either, but all are said to have harmed the land or have toxic soil that “must be removed” at once. Living earth, microorganisms, nutrients that birth life, where is the harm in living soil? They treat it like anthrax. If it is such a hazard, how is it for sale on the shelves at every garden store? Where is the attack on soil manufactures if it is so harmful?
This particular property owner was charged $88,000 in Administrative penalties. Another was charged 150,000 who didn’t even show up to defend himself. Additionally they have to pay for the hearing officer (amount undisclosed) and about 3k to the PBD. If he does not pay this in 90 days they get liens against their property. “A lien is a legal right or claim against a piece of property by a creditor. Liens are commonly placed against property such as homes and cars so creditors can collect what is owed to them.”
What is happening to people in Humboldt via the abatement program is an issue regarding much more than cannabis too. Try to put your feelings about the plant itself aside, and jump in these people’s shoes. Just like their neighbors who have permits, they cultivate the same plant (often at a lower quantity and higher quality) to survive and often have for generations. They likely contributed to the community, didn’t exploit the land or the people who helped them, perhaps they grew modest amounts, never offering excesses like 30k plus to invest in a permit.
Then the compliance process comes with such beautiful propaganda that the county is welcoming applicants with open arms, “Come on down folks we’ve got lines out the door and our cash machines warm, you’ll find out what’s required for the permit after you pay up! Rest assured you can trust us, legalization is great!” After paying large permit fees, undisclosed to you in an appropriate time, you discover this is going to be beyond a headache and cost way more money than you can afford, requiring immense experts, engineers, legal teams, contractors, consultants, water agencies, fish and wild life and you may have to hire someone to assess sensitive wildlife populations too (Can you imagine if our food was so meticulously produced? In my dreams!). Sometimes folks have to make hundreds of thousands in road repairs to fix legacies left from logging and other remediation work just to be in compliance. Which makes this especially ironic because we are talking about the land of the earth defenders here, often folks who protested logging.
So imagine you’ve given thousands over to the county. Along with your application is all the proof they need to come after you for your unpermitted home, your old car, your compost toilet, your recycling pile, your low income tenant in an rv, your rain catchment pond or a plant. If you fall out of compliance you are an easy target because you already gathered all the evidence the county needs to charge you with.
This is exactly what happened to one unlucky abatement recipient that fell out of compliance with his permit application for a single month. Falling out of compliance is fairly easy to do, ex. address change, miss a letter, vacation, illness/ in the family, no money, hired the wrong consulting company, etc. After only a month of non-compliance he received an abatement and then lost his hearing. In his decision order, it states “The illegal cultivation appears to have been conducted for years based on …[the defendant’s] own declaration of cannabis cultivation, ” with his “permit submitted December 30, 2016.”
No wonder 90% of farmers do not trust the county to attempt to come in compliance. District 2 Supervisor Fennel (up for reelection March 3) and PBD Director John Ford assured us in many town meetings that what they are doing today, would never happen.
The irony around the abatement program runs even deeper. Currently in Humboldt County someone could potentially an easily attainable Timber Harvest Permit, clear cut their property for the at least 30k it costs to obtain a permit. They would be authorized to do harm to the environment for money, to obtain a piece of paper that claims they are superior in not causing environmental harm. That’s why legalization was such a bad idea to begin with and the damage is further exacerbated by Humbodlt County ejecting over 90% of mostly small farmers from compliance.
This inherent ineffectiveness of legalization is not surprising however, this corruption in regulatory industries is widespread. Regulations permit harm, they do not protect the environment. Take it from legal experts at the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF.org), fighting the very types of environmentally damaging regulatory agencies all across the world,
“Regulatory Capture is an economic theory which states that regulatory agencies may come to be dominated by the industries or interests they are charged with regulating. The result is that the agency, which is charged with acting in the public’s interest, instead acts in ways that benefit the industry it is supposed to be regulating. This is when CELDF, and its partner communities, decided to forge a new path, one that doesn’t beg for constitutional rights; but asserts them. CELDF rejects the idea that regulations stop harm. The regulatory system was set up to legalize the harm done by corporations as well as to remove their exposure to being sued and held accountable. Within our democratic republic, and under a federalist form of government, when we exercise the rights we know we have, it creates a space for them to be realized. Obedience to just law is important…. However, when governments that have been created to secure and protect our rights instead begin to establish laws that protect the rights of multi-national corporations and the wealthy over the civil and political rights of We the People, we have to question the legitimacy of some of those laws and the governmental structures that create them.”
The allegations that people came here to make money from cannabis, termed “greenrushers,” is often used as a means to justify these attacks. I’ve witnessed several abatement hearings now and I have yet to see a greenrusher. I have seen elderly residents barley able to walk unaided, people who are terminally ill, disabled, one teenager victim of a trespass grow, and some highly honored members of our community under attack.
This greenrusher narrative has to stop because it justifies these heart-wrenching actions. Not only is calling someone a greenrusher as offensive as calling a human “an illegal,” it’s just as misinformed. It is money that affords a permit after all, so those most enabled by legalization are by design those who made the most money from cannabis cultivation prior to it being legal. If the county really wanted farmers to come into compliance all they would need to do is lower the costs and reduce barriers for small farmers.That isnt being done in Humboldt County.
On the topic of greenrushers I must say this isn’t about where you are from or how old you are, whether you own property or have wealth, this is about where you are going and what you value.I personally value cohesive healthy communities. I value small farmers, the potential of Humboldt County to be a beacon of hope for sustainable living and farming practices worldwide. I value inclusive, safe and family friendly rural towns, living off the land in harmony with mother earth. This is all at stake today.
Fennel claims, “The greenrush came very close to destroying our community.”
The only greenrush I see is that brought by legalization, which undoubtedly has “come very close to destroying our community,” and still easily could if we do not make drastic changes to policy and so policymakers. Last I checked Estelle Fennel is making quite a bit off of legalization, from over 40k on record in this year’s campaign contributions alone, to leadership roles in affiliated agencies (CCA etc.), to farm affiliations and all those connections afford, to her $500k taxpayer funded Trellis program, then of course there is her approximately 90k yearly salary plus benefits for the last 8 years. It is also common knowledge according to numerous sources that she used to cultivate before it was legal just like many of her constituents. Who is making millions? Who is the greenrusher? It’s your standard case of the pot policymaker calling the pot farmers black market.
Regardless of your position we are all living on the edge in Humboldt. Families and workers are moving away, revenues are way down, accidents, substance abuse, suicide, murders, adverse childhood experiences, people without homes, it’s all so disproportionate to our population. There are the most bizarre crimes lately too, further revealing the desperation in people consequence of an entire industry in collapse. Likewise there are vast robberies of permitted farms and others. Students are suffering and so our educators. When people do not have their basic needs met, it gets to be a stressful, dangerous and undesirable place to live for everyone.