After the Butte Fires destroyed wide swaths of Calaveras County, it turned to cannabis to rebuild. Photo by Chris Roberts

CalEmbarrassed County

Calaveras County just jilted hundreds of legal marijuana growers by declaring their operations unlawful — after charging them more than $10 million.

Calaveras County is best known as the setting of a Mark Twain short story in which a celebrated frog loses a jumping contest because he was forced to eat shotgun lead. Last month, the county forced its legal marijuana growers to eat a steaming plate of something much worse.

The Calaveras County Board of Supervisors voted on Jan. 10 to outlaw the commercial cultivation of marijuana within its borders. That’s not unusual. California counties and municipalities are allowed to set whatever rules they like under the state’s new cannabis laws.

What is unusual, however, is that this very Board of Supervisors had put out the welcome mat for commercial growers only 18 months before — and collected more than $10 million in taxes and permit fees they’ve announced no intention to refund.

That means that the 200 legal and licensed growers in this county are left holding the bag (as are 700 more applicants in the pipeline who’d already paid their fees). And the decision rendered hundreds of farm workers instantly unemployed.

“It’s heartbreaking. There are hundreds and hundreds of jobs lost now, and millions of tax dollars,” says Michael Ray, CEO of cannabis producer Bloom Farms, which has a large grow in Calaveras County.  “There are people who relied on that job up there, and now they don’t have that job.”

The cannabis ban was handed down at the end of a raucous board meeting that went for hours, saw supervisors high-tail it out of the chamber under a hail of obscenities, and where one public commenter slapped another during the deliberations. (Charges were not pressed.) But the controversy over the marijuana-growing ban, which takes effect in just 30  days, has bitterly divided Calaveras County.

“There’s a large community of supporters up there, and a lot of non-supporters,” Ray tells SF Evergreen. “I don’t think it’s over yet. It will be fought out further.”

Legal marijuana has been an enormously divisive issue in this rural county 125 miles east of San Francisco. Like many California regions with vast acres of farmland, the population skews pretty conservative, and in the 2016 election, Trump beat Clinton by a margin of 57-34. But legal marijuana grows like Bloom Farms are the county’s biggest industry, according to a 2016 University of Pacific  study, generating more than $250 million in revenue for hardware stores, grocery stores, and the overall economy.

Bloom Farms is not related to the San Francisco dispensary Bloom Room (although Bloom Room  has carried its products). The Calaveras has farm been in Ray’s family since 1973 — when it was established as a hippie commune — and Ray first planted marijuana there in 2010 when it became legal to grow, but strictly for selling to dispensaries.

A few years later, Calaveras County passed an emergency ordinance allowing large commercial farms to grow and sell recreational marijuana. And it did so under the worst of circumstances.

“It was Sept. 11, 2015,” Ray says. “I remember that day very clearly.”

The Butte Fires of that year torched more than 70,000 acres in the  region, including Bloom Farms. Calaveras County was both physically and financially devastated, and county officials saw large commercial marijuana grows as a quick and effective route to economic recovery.

“Opening up cannabis in a taxed and regulated fashion was their way of easing the sting of the destruction of the fire,” Ray says.

It worked. Legal marijuana produced  more than 2,600 jobs and nearly $150 million in labor income in Calaveras County during the first year of commercial pot farming. But then, two pro-marijuana county supervisors were voted out of office in November 2016 and replaced by prohibitionist supervisors.

“There was a change in the make-up on the Board of Supervisors, and that sentiment shifted,” Ray tells SF Evergreen. The new anti-marijuana board majority pulled the rug out from under the legal cannabis farms, rendering millions of dollars in investments completely useless.

These farms are not the kind of operations venture-capital billionaires back.

“Calaveras County is made up of family farmers. This wasn’t big business,” Ray says.

The county has not announced any plans to reimburse the growers for tens of thousands of dollars each farm had to pay in licensing and permitting fees, a total Ray describes as “everything from water board approval, code applications, environmental impact, lots of things.”

So how does a successful marijuana farmer suddenly eliminate a multi-acre grow operation when it has just been instantly declared illegal?

“Shears,” Ray says, making a cutting motion with his arms.

Calaveras’ marijuana growers aren’t going to be cut down that easily. They’re working on a ballot initiative to override the supervisors’ decision, they’re trying to recall the supervisors who voted down their pot farms, and they’ve promised lawsuits galore.   

But the saga of Calaveras County marijuana growers shows how delicate California’s new legal marijuana laws really are. All it takes is one city council or board of supervisors decision to make years of work and millions of dollars invested go up in smoke. And the county known for its celebrated frog just showed how it’s not easy going green.