Pubdate: Sun, 09 Sep 2012
Source: Times-Standard (Eureka, CA)
Copyright: 2012 Times-Standard
Author: Thadeus Greenson


Amid Federal Activity, Many Still Support Oversight, Regulation of Pot Industry

When he looks across Humboldt County, District Attorney Paul Gallegos 
can't say he's surprised with the proliferation of marijuana growing 
operations or with the environmental damage they bring.

"It's the same sort of thing you would get if you suddenly 
deregulated any other commercial endeavor," Gallegos said. "If we had 
fishing without limits, there'd be no fish in the ocean. Imagine what 
the forests would look like if we had timber harvesting without 
oversight or regulation.

"With marijuana, we have an illegal industry running parallel with a 
putatively legal industry -- all totally unregulated," Gallegos 
continued. "The natural result of this is you have complete adverse 
environmental impacts and adverse social impacts. That's what we're 
dealing with."

The Humboldt County Sheriff's Office is teaming up with federal 
agencies to target some of the largest grow operations in the county, 
with Sheriff Mike Downey saying that cracking down on illicit grows 
is his top priority for the year. But the effort makes for some 
unlikely bedfellows, as some of those very same federal agencies have 
worked to block local and state efforts to regulate medical marijuana.

There seems to be widespread consensus among local officials that 
regulation of the medical marijuana cultivation industry would be a 
gigantic step toward reining in some of the abuses and toward making 
sure the drug is grown in a manner that is both environmentally 
friendly and safe for consumers.

But the federal government doesn't recognize state medical marijuana 
laws and -- with marijuana still classified alongside heroin as a 
Schedule 1 controlled substance -- maintains that it will vigorously 
enforce federal drug laws.

The U.S. Attorney's Office has even gone so far as to threaten 
municipalities -- including Arcata and Eureka -- saying it will 
consider prosecuting elected officials and government employees who 
"facilitate" violations of the federal Controlled Substances Act by 
passing or enforcing ordinances that sanction marijuana cultivation.

The chasm between the federal government's outlook on the issue and 
that of local officials was on full display at a recent League of 
California Cities Redwood Division meeting held in Humboldt County. 
The division, which comprises North Coast counties and is directed by 
Arcata City Councilman Mark Wheetley, has made cracking down on 
illegal grow operations a priority for the year.

The meeting -- attended by local elected officials, state and federal 
law enforcement officers, environmental scientists and landowners -- 
was aimed at offering a forum for folks to pool information in order 
to help everyone apprised of the breadth of the problem. In what 
organizers believed was a coup, the meeting was also attended by 
Tommy Lanier, director of the White House-funded National Marijuana Initiative.

In a recent interview with the Times-Standard, Lanier said he focused 
his comments on the need for more education about large scale illegal 
cultivation. Lanier said he began his remarks by explaining why 
marijuana is not a medicine and urging officials to educate 
themselves and citizens about Sativex, a cannabinoid-based 
pharmaceutical alternative to marijuana.

Lanier said his other major goal was to make sure local officials 
knew they could not implement policies or ordinances that in any way 
facilitated, or were complacent regarding the medical marijuana industry.

"We hit that home pretty hard because what we don't want is a safe 
haven for people," Lanier said.

North Coast Congressman Mike Thompson said he's disappointed that -- 
in the face of drug trafficking organizations conducting massive grow 
operations in state and national forests -- any federal agency would 
waste time and resources threatening local governments that are 
simply trying to reduce the harm associated with an unregulated 
industry legalized by California voters.

"It's crazy," Thompson said, adding that he previously urged Attorney 
General Eric Holder to let states and local governments regulate 
medical marijuana as they see fit. "I raised that with Holder, and I 
need to circle back on that."

Thompson said plainly that medical marijuana is legal in California, 
and there needs to be a regulatory process. He said there is just no 
oversight, leading to widespread abuses.

"I could not plant my vineyard the way these guys plant their pot," 
he said. "I think there needs to be something done -- and I think 
counties and the state need to do it."

While regulation is not likely to have an impact on a drug 
trafficking organization's grow operation on public lands, Gallegos 
said he thinks it will force many of the operations that purport to 
be in the gray areas of medical marijuana law into compliance, 
ensuring that they are operating within set limits and mitigating 
their environmental impacts.

"We always know we're going to have people who break the law," 
Gallegos said. "Even with something like timber or fishing, there are 
people who engage in those activities illegally. But, if we can halve 
the harm by bringing part of the industry into compliance, we will 
have done a great thing."

Downey -- who asked the feds to step in to help crack down on large 
scale grows throughout the county -- said he believes regulation 
would provide a big step toward reining in some of the abuse of state 
medical marijuana laws. The sheriff went so far as to advocate that 
the county adopt a regulation model similar to one enacted -- and 
later abandoned in the face of federal pressure -- by Mendocino 
County. The ordinance allowed medicinal grow operations of up to 99 
plants, if they were inspected by officials.

The regulation question aside, Downey said there are countless grow 
operations in Humboldt County that are clearly beyond the scope of 
state medical marijuana laws. He said it's those grows he's looking 
for federal help with.

"They've been very responsive and very receptive to my wishes as 
sheriff of Humboldt County," Downey said. "We're pretty much calling 
the shots. They supply resources when we ask for them, but they're 
not up here actively initiating any of these investigations."

Randy Wagner, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency's special agent in 
charge of Northern California operations, said Downey has been great 
to work with. Wagner wouldn't specify how targets are being chosen 
for raids and search warrants, but said his department isn't 
interested in going after "the sick and the dying."

Wagner also made clear it that, in his department's eyes, there is no 
such thing as legal marijuana sales or cultivation.

"We don't target medical marijuana, but we target drug traffickers 
and drug trafficking organizations. Period," he said. "Our priorities 
and mission haven't changed. We're always targeting groups or 
individuals who are cultivating or producing and distributing large 
amounts of drugs."

Targeting the "biggest and the baddest," as Wagner put it, is a good 
thing, according to Gallegos. But, he said, it really only addresses 
part of the issue. No law enforcement agency, individually or 
collectively, has the resources to go after everyone, he said. 
Regulation would be a huge step in bringing the grows that are in 
compliance with Proposition 215 under some type of monitoring, 
diminishing abuses of the law and ensuring the environment isn't 
being destroyed.

"The two options I see are the federal government needs to change the 
stance it's taken with California's government's ability to regulate, 
or the state has to simply say, 'We accept your challenge, and we 
will move forward,'" Gallegos said. "At some point, the community 
needs to be able to step in and say, 'This is an act we have 
legalized and now, as with every other legal activity of humanity, 
there need to be rules and regulations associated with it."

"It's time to bring it out of the hills, into the open and permit it, 
and let our regulatory agencies go in and inspect it, just like they 
would with any other type of agricultural product," he said.
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