Mendocino Voice reports on the operation…
The newest multi-law-enforcement campaign, “Operation Clean Sweep,” against unpermitted cannabis cultivation kicked off today with convoys heading up Spy Rock Road, initiating a previously announced eradication effort being conducted by the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO), in conjunction with the California National Guard, and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. A similar effort is ongoing in Humboldt County.
Local law enforcement have stated that they will coordinate with CalCannabis, the statewide regulatory division of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, to target cannabis grows which are not in the permitting system.
But some local farmers have expressed concern due to the complex nature of the permitting process — and the relatively few permanent permits currently issued. The Mendocino Cannabis Alliance (MCA), an advocacy group that represents a number of permitted cannabis farmers and business owners, issued a statement last week in anticipation of the enforcement efforts (see full statement below).
Several convoys of vehicles were reportedly seen heading up Spy Rock Rd. from Laytonville this morning, including a chipper, with helicopters spotted in the area. Mendocino residents have reported seeing Black Hawk helicopters over the last several weeks. “Operation Clean Sweep,” was officially announced in a press release from the MCSO mid-day today (see full statement below). The announcement stated that the operation will take place July 15 through July 19, and focus on previously identified non-permitted locations in the “greater Eel River area of Northern Mendocino County,” that are “believed to be involved in water diversion and other situations of environmental degradation.” The operation will also include Cal Fire, and the State Water Resource Board. The MCSO’s Capt. Van Patten said in an email that the National Guard, who has been following the requested assistance of the Sheriff’s Office, has personnel assigned to the state Campaign Against Marijuana Program (CAMP), and had assisted in serving three search warrants in Mendocino during one previous week during 2019.
Anticipation and concern over the impending operation has been building for several weeks, as an increasing number of low-flying military-like helicopters appeared around the county during an aerial surveillance training held at the Ukiah airport in June. A number of farmers who have applied for local and state permits, both of which are required, have shared concerns due to processing delays at both local and state levels, as well as over helicopters circling very low around their properties. The MCA’s statement notes that farmers are concerned about low-flying helicopter flights, and that eradication may occur immediately if there is a more than 10% discrepancy between what amount of cannabis has been permitted and what is found on site.
The decision to bring on the California Guard, as part of a multi-agency effort, to work on cannabis eradication efforts in Northern California was first mentioned by Governor Gavin Newsom some months ago. In June, Mendocino residents got a glimpse of what that might look like as Homeland Security helicopters took to the skies for an aerial surveillance training with MCSO and other agencies, based at the Ukiah airport, which has taken place in many previous years.
This year, a number of residents expressed concern during the joint training operation, in no small part due to the helicopters prompting fear of new wildfires. Residents and farmers, including some with no cannabis growing on their property, also reported seeing extremely low flying helicopters hovering for extended periods, taking pictures, and some reported the height of the flights resulted in damage to their greenhouses or frightened their livestock. Legally, aircraft is required to remain above 500 feet, although there are specific exceptions to allow for certain law enforcement activities, such as documenting evidence. At least one permitted cultivator, the Mendocino Clone Company’s Jed Davis, filed a complaint with the FAA after his greenhouse was damaged during the trainings, but was informed that the FAA cannot accept complaints regarding other federal agencies. Davis said he was considering legal action to recoup the alledged damage done to his newly purchased greenhouse after helicopters hovered above them at a low height for an extended period.
Many Mendocino cultivators who are seeking to comply with the new California regulations for commercial cannabis permits have struggled to make it through the complex process, which requires not only dual licenses from both the local government, such as the county, and the California Department of Food and Agriculture, as well as seeking approval or permits from a diverse range of other state agencies. Van Patten said that in Mendocino County, the targeted cannabis grows “have been determined to not have any connection to legal permitting. The operation is not including any location that is connected to an annual permit, temporary business permit or provisional permit.” The CDFW’s Janice Mackey said that the agency’s primarily coordinates cannabis enforcement activities with other agencies, and that the CDFW checks with the CDFW while identifying grows to target “to determine what steps may have been taken to obtain a commercial cannabis cultivation license.”
Van Patten said that the sites targeted were not complaint-driven, but instead were non-permitted grows “identified as being a danger/impact to the Eel River watershed based upon scientific and aerial examinations.” Van Patten noted that the operation identified sites on both public and private lands, but that “There has been a noticeable decrease in public land grows.” Mackey said that her agency’s main focus was environmental impacts, which “typically involve environmental harm, habitat destruction, illegal water diversions, poaching and other such crimes.” She added, “we usually focus our efforts on unpermitted cultivation sites doing the most environmental damage.”
One fear expressed by cultivators seeking permits is that if there is uncertainty about their permit status, the crop will be eradicated immediately. In response to this question, Mackey stated, “We will eradicate plants when there is an illegal grow. By law, CDFW is required to take representative samples as evidence and then may destroy the rest.”
In the MCA statement, Allman is described as saying that if there is a 10% difference in the amount of cannabis approved for a particularly permit, and what is found on the property, the entire crop may eradicated immediately. The MCA statement notes that Allman has stated his deputies will carry identification, and be instructed not to fly below the standard 500 feet unless in “narrow” law enforcement situations such as those requiring photographic evidence.
A request for confirmation of these statements has been made to Sheriff Allman, but he was not immediately reached, and it was after business hours. Capt. Van Patten was unable to confirm any of the statements attributed to Allman as reflecting agency policy. This article will be updated with any response.
DATE: “July 15, 2019”
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
Incident Number: 2019
Crime/Incident: Operation Clean Sweep
Location: Eel River watershed in Mendocino County
Date of Incident: 07-15-2019
Time: 8:00 AM
Written By: Lieutenant Andrew Porter #2403
During the week of July 15th-19th, the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office will be collaborating with the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CalCannabis Licensing), California Department of Fish and Wildlife, California State Water Resource Board, Cal Fire and the California Army National Guard to serve search warrants on public/private lands to investigate identified illegal cannabis cultivation sites.
All the sites will be those of non-permitted cannabis cultivation sites that are believed to be involved in water diversion and other situations of environmental degradation that impacts several watersheds in the greater Eel River area of Northern Mendocino County.
The collaboration includes pre-identified sites that do not have cannabis permits, state water permits for cannabis or permits from Cal Fire for deforestation and legal tree removal.
Cannabis farms that are licensed through the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s CalCannabis Cultivation Licensing Division will not be the focus of this operation.
CalCannabis Licensing Inspectors will be participating in Operation Clean Sweep and have been an essential resource in the Operation’s pre-identification process of the sites to be investigated.
Captain Gregory L. Van Patten #1184
MCSO press release from July 15, 2019.
Here’s the full press release from the Mendocino Cannabis Alliance, issued July 10:
Recent reports of pending enforcement actions have caused significant concern in the Mendocino cannabis community and the Emerald Triangle at large.
[Mendocino County, CA Wednesday, July 10, 2019] Reports from multiple sources throughout Northern California have indicated that low flying helicopters under the auspices of multiple state and local agencies have been photographing cannabis cultivation sites from the air as part of anticipated enforcement actions.
Sheriff Tom Allman of the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Department informed Mendocino Cannabis Alliance (MCA) Board member, attorney Hannah Nelson, that next week, the National Guard helicopters and pilots will be used to identify and locate illegal cannabis operations that are on public lands and/or have environmental and/or water violations in Mendocino County. No National Guard will be involved in cannabis eradication, though other members of the County of Mendocino Marijuana Eradication Team (COMMET) will be conducting eradication and members of resource agencies will be present to document environmental and water violations.
Nelson informed Sheriff Allman that there are concerns regarding low overflights and there have been numerous times recently that helicopters have flown so low as to damage greenhouse plastic and scare animals. She requested that Sheriff Allman ensure that pilots observe the 500′ minimum altitude restrictions and be sensitive to the negative impact on innocent citizens. Sheriff Allman said that he expects all personnel to follow court rulings that establish a 500’ minimum altitude except in rare and narrowly tailored circumstances where 300’ is permissible to photograph violations and that he would personally instruct all team members of the legal restrictions during a pre-mission briefing on Monday morning. He asked that citizens submit video documentation of any violations directly to Nelson at MCA via email at email@example.com who will pass them onto him. MCA suggests detailing the location, reference points to establish altitudes and to provide documentation of land, animal or property disturbance.
After Nelson raised the concern that cannabis farmers who are seeking to enter the regulated system might get caught up in the missions, Sheriff Allman noted that all activities are pursuant to search warrants and are not wide-ranging ‘fishing’ expeditions. Sheriff Allman added that the Sheriff’s department has been using its best efforts to ensure that those search warrants were not sought for those who have applied with the Mendocino County Cannabis Permitting Program. However, Sheriff Allman did caution that any cultivator that exceeds their local and state authorization are subject to complete eradication (not just the difference of the overage). Generally, complete eradication will occur if an otherwise authorized cultivator exceeds the amount authorized by more than 10% according to Sheriff Allman.
Sheriff Allman is pleased to work with MCA to educate the public and the law enforcement team members so as to minimize any negative impact on innocent citizens and lawful cultivators. He will be instructing all personnel conducting missions to provide their names and/or business cards when asked to aid in transparency and accountability.
Additionally, PG&E announced this morning that they will also be flying helicopters and fixed-wing planes over areas of Humboldt, Mendocino, and Lake counties for fire-spotting and electric line surveying.
It is well documented that the populations within legacy cannabis producing regions have been disproportionately impacted by the US War On Drugs, including having suffered through militarized enforcement actions which at times left lasting trauma, including PTSD. Many of the same victims have now bravely stepped forward to enter the highly regulated industry.
Under MAUCRSA, (Medical and Adult Use Cannabis Regulation Act) many of the activities once subject to felony prosecution are now infractions or misdemeanors or simply handled through civil fines and regulatory enforcement actions. If the illicit operation involves environmental crimes, it categorizes the offense as a criminal matter subject to felony charges and significant fines. We call on State and local agencies to recognize that enforcement for illicit operations on private land is more efficiently and humanely implemented through code enforcement.
Humboldt County has seen a 700% increase in successful enforcement and eradication of illicit operations through the issuance of an Abatement Notice and notice of large fines. The widespread use of National Guard helicopters and personnel, along with other military-style enforcement tactics should be reserved for only the most egregious situations.
Have your local authorization and state licenses properly posted, your environmental permits, and all other documents that establish the legality of the cultivation. You may also want to have your lawyer’s contact available and, whenever possible, document with video any encounters with law enforcement. Try to include which local and state agencies are present and the names of associated staff and officers. While not required, cultivators may also want to place 4’ banners with their local and/or state permit and license numbers on them in visible positions on the ground so law enforcement can see them clearly from helicopters.
We will continue to provide fact-based information as it comes in and are committed to creating a safe space for you to share your concerns.
The Mendocino Cannabis Alliance serves and promotes Mendocino County’s world-renowned cannabis cultivators and businesses through sustainable economic development, education and public policy initiatives.