First “abatement letters” will likely continue to be the primary avenue for enforcement this season. Notably, while one can mitigate the possibility of neighbor complaints by being a good neighbor, the abatement letters more often arise from the use of intensive satellite surveillance, sometimes imperfectly.

Authored By: Heather Burke – Origin Law Group

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Although enforcement of unregulated cultivation will likely shake down under the same set of laws as last year, this blog is intended to offer an updated overview of the issues in play this season. To be clear at the outset, it’s likely to be ugly.First “abatement letters” will likely continue to be the primary avenue for enforcement this season. Notably, while one can mitigate the possibility of neighbor complaints by being a good neighbor, the abatement letters more often arise from the use of intensive satellite surveillance, sometimes imperfectly.

Second, we can expect the National Guard to return to support various local task forces, which often include the Sheriff, agents from the Department of Fish and Wildlife and from the State and Regional Water Boards, and usually flanked by local Code officers. As with the past few seasons, the raids will likely continue to focus on specific watersheds and work their way out using powerful satellite imagery.

 

OPENING AN ADMINISTRATIVE “CASE”

Any of the agencies involved in a raid can and often will institute their own “case,” meaning one raid can result in several “cases.” For example, the property owner or onsite worker may end up with a criminal case, a DFW case, a Water Board case, and a local Code case.

Keep in mind that a “case” can be opened by simply mailing or even posting abatement-related notices. Thus, while raids are undeniably scary, this new take on ye’ olde multi-agency raid usually results in the same or similar consequences as with abatement letters, i.e. the property will be thrown into environmental compliance and code compliance (“red tagging”), a process which requires engineers, biologists and other environmental consultants, often with costs in the several tens of thousands.

It is important to note that environmental and code cases are generally considered “administrative,” as opposed to criminal, which is why I put the word “case” in quotes here. Administrative cases are often formulaic, as fines or penalties are often withheld until the government can assess whether a property owner is willing to come into compliance. The procedure is a bit different for each agency, so here’s a snapshot:

  • DFW/Water Boards: The environmental agencies will often EACH open a separate “case,” meaning there are three separate agencies coordinating various aspects of the compliance (in addition to local agencies). The environmental agencies usually hold off on imposing fees until they’ve determined whether the property owner is going to “get in compliance” or not. The process of satiating three environmental agencies can be costly and time consuming, but they are also authorized to impose astronomical penalties for noncompliance, so getting in compliance is often the least expensive alternative.
  • County Code Officers: Code officers will usually “red tag” or “cite” the property for building and related violations of the local code. Counties are authorized to immediately impose fees under a new state statute (Govt. Code 53069.4) that I discussed in last year’s enforcement blog HERE, though many jurisdictions wisely do not and allow 3-10 days for an initial statement of compliance. Instead, most jurisdictions send “warning letters” that threaten massive fines if someone does not come into compliance within the time period.

The sad result of the current code-related enforcement regime is that it penalizes small family farms while allowing those who are more risk-tolerant to game the system by treating fines as a mere “cost of doing business.” This inequitable application of the same set of enforcement rules is the primary reason Sarah and I chose to discontinue our administrative defense practice at this time. Please check out Part 2 of this 2-part blog series for more about that decision. 

  • Local Sheriffs: Sheriff’s deputies evaluate the situation for potential filing of a misdemeanor/felony case, and will be asking questions relating to sales, interstate shipping, and so on. Remember the collective/cooperative law is DEAD, meaning the primary defense for unregulated legacy farmers will be personal use, a defense not available to demonstrably commercial unregulated grows. 
  • National Guard: The National Guard will likely be present this year, offering military-grade surveillance, helicopters, and related support. Keep in mind the National Guard is the only military force allowed to enact war-like response on our nation’s own citizens, and they were most recently deployed to squelch protestors’ First Amendment rights. I am not sure if these issues will bleed over into cannabis, but I do believe the unprecedented use of the National Guard in the last few years is notable and concerning.

 

CLOSING THOUGHTS

As the laws that support this new style of raid are in their infancy, there is little legal precedent, meaning we can expect significant litigation where unregulated cannabis cultivation intersects with individual liberties. Although we are certain to see fresh and exciting legal defenses to these types of cases, most folks do not want to be a test case. It is expensive, cumbersome, and is oftentimes a losing battle.

As always, outdoor/sungrower family farms will take the brunt of seasonal enforcement measures because they are immobile, their lives inextricably linked to the earth on which their farms sit, sometimes for more than one generation. Enforcing on legacy farms is particularly troublesome in light of the state’s three-year eligibility prohibition for anyone who gets cited for unregulated commercial cannabis activity. While I’ve heard tales that the governor and several legacy-producing Counties are developing various grant programs to help bring legacy farms into the regulated fold, these programs won’t be in effect during this growing season.

We are grateful so many trade and policy organizations have made “access to the market” a primary policy objective because the penalties for unregulated activities are heavy and ever-increasing. If you want to see change in these rules, please support your local trade and policy organizations in this important work. Here’s a few of our favorite: