Last week, Joshua Grover, cannabis program director for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), published an opinion piece on kymkemp.com that was directed not only at the “many cultivators…at a crossroads” whether to become licensed growers, imploring them to enter the licensing program, but also at licensed growers, who, Grover argued, “also need to encourage their unlicensed colleagues to come forward. Remember, your neighbor’s grow may not be licensed or environmentally friendly and it may be dipping into your profits.”
CDFW’s general mission statement directs the agency to “manage California’s diverse fish, wildlife, and plant resources, and the habitats upon which they depend, for their ecological values and for their use and enjoyment by the public.”
CDFW also plays a major role in the cannabis cultivation permitting process. As noted on its website, “Cannabis cultivators applying for an Annual License from the California Department of Food and Agriculture must have a Lake and Streambed Alteration (LSA) Agreement or written verification that one is not needed. CDFW requires an LSA Agreement when a project activity may substantially adversely affect fish and wildlife resources. LSA Agreements provide actions to avoid and minimize adverse impacts and provide protections to California’s fish and wildlife resources.”
When CDFW looked at the situation statewide, however, its mission hit a hard wall of reality. “In California, there are an estimated 50,000 cannabis cultivators,” Grover wrote in his editorial. “Of that number, only a small percentage are seeking to become legal or are in full compliance with state and county laws.”
The state has been there to help, he added. “Over the last 18 months, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) and other state and local agencies have all extended a helping hand to cannabis cultivators through public workshops and other outreach activities, providing information in support of state licensing.” More workshops are scheduled, he said, insisting that “help and resources are available for anyone who is interested.”
Becoming compliant is not a choice, however, a point Grover made point-blank to growers on the fence. “Cultivators will find that becoming part of the legal cannabis market is much cheaper than having your grow shut down.” The implied threat was reinforced with a multi-agency call to action. “CDFW,” Grover informed the community, ”has collaborated with the state’s licensing authority for cultivation, the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA), and the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) to coordinate enforcement and compliance efforts.”
The CDFW editorial was met with condemnation bordering on contempt by many, but not all, of the 126 people who submitted comments. Moderated with a light touch by Kemp, the site’s comment section is known as a lively place where a range of what Kemp might call ‘outlier” opinions are commonly expressed, but it also in many ways represents the very community Grover wanted to reach.
Kemp said she gets about a million and a half monthly visitors to the site and knows maybe 10 percent of the people who comment on a given story. A lot of visitors are from Sacramento, she said, but she can tell from the comments that most of the people are homegrown. “We don’t know where they’re necessarily coming from,” she said, “but I would say that about 70 percent are from the Emerald Triangle—they’re locals. I can tell from their knowledge and how they say things.”
Indeed, the following comment, typos aside, exemplifies the type of comment Kemp has in mind. “I tried to go legal thinking it wouldnt be that bad and i payed thousands in consultants/lawyers fee’s,” wrote Done on April 3. “One Main determining factor was my road would cost anywhere from 100-200k (from the consultant who wanted me to continue, so add 20-40%). All of which was legacy from timber production, came that way when the land was bought 25 plus years ago.
“People dont realize that its insaine what they want growers to do,” continued Done. “If you go to state parks and look at their dirt roads and culverts its a fucking shit show, they wouldnt pass. But struggling farms have to compete in the market with the mega grows and have to have a perfect road and watershed when the agency thats enforcing it cant do it to their own roads. Some people have perfect properties, some have ammo cans full of cash. I have neither, So now im out completely, how naive i was.”
The demand by the state for growers seeking licenses to cultivate cannabis to fix all “legacy” issues on a given property, which in many cases turns out to be damage caused and not fixed by timber companies long gone, not only can be very expensive, but feels eminently unfair to most of the cannabis community, including Kemp, who said many good people are being hurt in the process.
“There are some bad actors being targeted,” she said, “but a lot are people who are very gentle on the land who are being told they have to fix a legacy logging road or something like that. A lot of these people don’t have a lot of money to begin with. They purchase damaged property because that’s all they could afford and were very gentle with it and fixed what they could, only to be told they have to fix everything all at once.”
The remediation fee also sticks in people’s craw. “It’s basically, ‘You have cannabis somewhere in your life and we’re going to charge you $3000, or whatever it is, to grow it, said Kemp. “They say it’s a remediation fee for problems on your land, but the reality is it doesn’t matter how good your land is, they find something.”
That view appears to be pretty much universal in the community. “They really are out of touch,” wrote a commenter about the agency. “DFW, DWR and the County are the primary reason folks are not coming in for Permits. These agencies require that legacy issues (i.e. grading, existing roads, undersized culverts, former log landings) be remediated. You’re talking tens, possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars in expenses. Most of these legacy impacts were created by past timber operations that these State agencies (DFW, DWR, RWQCB, CDF) approved. Throw on top of that tens of thousands of dollars for consultants for engineered grading plans, water resource protection plans, biological assessments, cultural resource studies, hydrological studies and who knows what else.”
The same commenter had choice words for Grover’s reasons why licensed growers should try to convince their unlicensed neighbors to begin the process. “For DFW to state that your neighbors are ‘…dipping into to your profits’ is complete bullshit, unless legal farmers are back-dooring their product (which I hear happens at an alarming rate),” s/he argued. “They are two separate markets.”
Not every commenter saw a distressed grower’s situation as being the fault of the state. TQM wrote, “Bottom line is: you purchase property that has code violations on it, you inherit those code violations. People need to take responsibility for their business decisions and conduct their due diligence before purchasing.”
SmallFry responded, “No, because these ‘Legacy’ violations are not triggered until you have ‘Cannabis’ on the property. Many of these old roads were approved and put into existence decades ago, before the new ‘codes’ even became an issue, often with a harvest plan. this is nothing but a corrupt loophole to extort more cash from cultivators…”
Uneasy truce or Mexican standoff?
Two days after posting the CDFW editorial, Kemp published a long article titled, “Drug Warriors–Former Outlaw Cannabis Cultivators and CDFW Eradicators–in an Uneasy Truce,” that described an increasingly tense situation in which the state is once again pitted against small farmers, reminiscent of the CAMP days of the mid-1990s, when spying helicopters and military assault raids were a relatively common occurrence.
“Cultivators and those who work with them say they perceive CDFW (the California Department of Fish and Wildlife) as engaged in punitive retaliation against them for having been outlaws,” wrote Kemp. “They say the department exacts harsh penalties and holds growers to higher standards than other industries.
“For their part, Fish and Wildlife employees have through the years been on the sites of some of the most egregious environmental damages caused by illegal marijuana growers,” continued Kemp. “In some cases, employees literally scooped up trash, banned pesticides, and even feces left behind by growers in formerly beautiful wilderness areas. Along with this, they found evidence of serious criminal activity.
“Thus,” she concluded, “each side may perceive the other as the enemy.”
Speaking with Kemp a few days later, she still was unclear exactly why CDFW contacted her out of the blue to post the editorial. “Hey, we have an op-ed piece,” they said. “Would you be willing to post it?” When she said yes, they asked, “Would you have them turn off the commentary?” Kemp said no, they thought about it for a while, and got back to her to say they wanted to post it anyway.
“I don’t know what they were trying to achieve, but I don’t think they achieved it,” said Kemp. “I think they were trying to reach out [to the community], but they absolutely do not understand the other side. It’s something everybody is doing, not understanding the other people’s point of view.
“We absolutely need more conversations happening, because [CDFW] really does not grasp how some of their words were perceived by the community,” added Kemp, who added a particularly troubling anecdote considering the ostensible purpose behind writing the editorial.
“I asked them if they read the comments and they acted like they didn’t,” she said. “I’m like, ‘Well, what was the point? Do you want a conversation, or do you just want to throw things out?’ I don’t understand.”
John Hayes is a Humboldt grower in the middle of the licensing process for his own small-canopy grow and brand, Rey’s Cannabis, and he also manages a larger grow facility. A regular reader of Redheaded Blackbelt, he was genuinely ticked by the CDFW editorial, in the way it framed the reason for growers not pursuing licenses as a battle between the traditional and licensed markets rather than a systemic problem caused by excessive taxation and onerous regulations applied seemingly indiscriminately and unfairly.
He recalled an incident that illustrated his point. “The state was on my property recently doing an inspection and I could actually hear a bulldozer in the distance, because they’re really loud,” said Hayes. “I said to the inspectors, ‘Do you know what that is?’ They had no clue. ‘It’s a bulldozer carving out the top of the hill for an illegal grow.’
“’We’re here for this property.’”
It is the sort of anecdote one hears frequently, but in the aftermath of the “reach out” by CDFW, Hayes is especially irritated with the ham-handed attempt by the state to get him and others to influence their traditional neighbors and friends with the only incentive to do so being a threat.
“The only carrot the state is giving me is a stick to use against my neighbors,” he said.