Nearly five years after voters approved legalization of adult cannabis use in California, tensions remain high between advocates for cannabis cultivation and people who fear allowing marijuana, especially in vast rural areas, has increased lawlessness, damaged natural resources and threatened public health.  

Proposition 64, the measure that legalized marijuana, allows local jurisdictions to impose their own regulations, up to and including prohibiting commercial cultivation. It also reduced penalties for growing marijuana without proper permits or in places that prohibit it.

California communities continue to refine and update their cannabis plans following legislative action this summer that consolidated state oversight into the Department of Cannabis Control. The legislature asked for socially equitable cannabis programs and revised some of the definitions and conditions surrounding licensing.

Many communities are still struggling to balance legislative intent with realities on the ground.

“In Southern California, thousands of illegal cannabis grows have sprung up around the desert communities,” Asm. Luz Rivas of the San Fernando Valley said during a budget committee hearing in July. “Cracking down on these grows, local officials and law enforcement have found instances of forced labor, of cartel violence, water theft, and the destruction of fragile desert habitats and wildlife.”

San Bernardino County estimates the number of illegal cannabis operations has increased by five times (from about 200 to more than 1,000), taxing law enforcement and prompting the creation of a multi-agency task force. David Wert, a spokesman for the county, told Agri-Pulse in an email that illegal cannabis operations “consume huge amounts of water, much of which is likely obtained illegally, and they use huge amounts of strong and perhaps illegal chemicals.” Wert said he is “not aware of any specific impacts to other agricultural sectors.”

It is unlawful to grow marijuana outdoors in any unincorporated area of San Bernardino County and indoor growing is allowed for personal medicinal use only. “The rationale for banning outdoor grows is that they attract violent armed criminals looking to steal the crop,” Wert said, “and therefore tend to be guarded by armed people.”

In August, the San Bernardino Board of Supervisors approved an “urgency ordinance” to increase penalties for illegal cultivation.

San Diego County has five legal marijuana grows in unincorporated areas, but officials halted licensing after issuing those. The county is now undertaking a two-year process of determining what ordinances will be recommended ahead of creating any additional licensing opportunities.

San Diego County Supervisor Joel Anderson has echoed some of the concerns raised in San Bernardino County regarding illegal operations, which he says are found primarily in communities of color in his district. When they have been raided, he said, law enforcement “uncovered weapons, cash, etc. and it’s like a game of whack-a-mole. They get shut down and pop up in another neighborhood.”

Anderson supports farmers who want the option to legally grow cannabis in unincorporated parts of San Diego County. He wants any ordinance allowing for that to include ample enforcement muscle so that illegal growing is stopped.

During a public meeting on the subject Thursday, San Diego County staff emphasized that establishing social equity in the legal cannabis program will be determined ahead of making formal recommendations to the board of supervisors about future permitting. Concurrently, environmental impact studies, including likely water use, are getting underway.

At the other end of the state, Siskiyou County is seeing marijuana cultivation bump up against both existing agricultural land use and county law enforcement. Ordinances there prohibited farmers with water rights from trucking water to dry communities in an effort to curb marijuana production. The impact also left livestock, home gardens and even people thirsty in a community that is largely Hmong American, said Margiana Petersen-Rockney, a doctoral candidate at UC Berkeley, who is part of a team that received a state grant to look at local control and cultivation bans.

“It’s a very actively messy situation there right now,” she said of Siskiyou County. On Friday, a federal judge said the ordinance “raises ‘serious questions’ about racial discrimination and leaves the growers without a source of water for drinking, bathing and growing food,” the AP reported. The judge said the county can no longer stop the trucks from delivering water.

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Petersen-Rockney said she has heard some farmers in Siskiyou County talk about hemp as a possible cash crop while they remain hesitant about marijuana. In other cases, long-time White farmers have aligned themselves with more recently-arrived Hmong Americans to support legal cannabis cultivation. 

Her colleague, post-doctoral researcher Michael Polson, adds that cannabis is a highly regulated industry but being the newest plant on the agricultural scene, it’s positioned to get scapegoated.

Cannabis “is not a particularly thirsty crop,” Polson said, but “the last water user is always the persona non grata.” He said there is a lack of solid data on how much water cannabis cultivation is using and because historically it was all illegal, and there remains illegal production in many parts of the state, it’s easy to stigmatize cannabis.

Polson said he wanted to research the role of local control in cannabis because he saw during the era of personal cultivation of medical marijuana that the enforcement mechanisms were widely varied. Again with cannabis, he says local authority in some places "re-vivifies prohibition in new post-legalization terms," which means even though the penalties for unlawful marijuana cultivation and distribution were lowered under Prop. 64, some counties have all but eliminated the possibility of growing it legally.  

At a recent protest in Sonoma County, advocates complained that local regulations were overly burdensome and might force some growers back underground, according to the Press-Democrat.  

While some law enforcement agencies have reported the presence of pesticide containers at illegal grows, the Department of Pesticide Regulation has tried to provide information for legal operations to find chemicals they can safely use. With marijuana still classified as illegal at the federal level and the US EPA the regulatory agency for pesticides, DPR has detailed descriptions of what language growers need to look for on a chemical bottle to determine whether they can use it.

In San Diego, community members expressed opposing opinions on whether the county should ultimately grant more permits for legal cultivation in unincorporated areas. Some residents commented that allowing more cultivation would lead to more consumption, which could contribute to more “drugged driving.”

But others see permitting and regulation as a way to ultimately provide viable business opportunities. In terms of social equity, these residents said some people who previously were harshly treated by older drug laws might be interested in legal cultivation. One meeting attendee emphasized that educating the public on all aspects of the state law and any new county ordinances would need to be a fundamental part of moving forward.

Polson said one advantage of legal cultivation is that it gives government officials and law enforcement more potential ways to influence what goes on.

“If you’re banning something,” he points out, “you have no levers with which to control it.”

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