Before the sky rained fire last September, Thomas Liberty figured he knew where he wanted to be for the rest of his life.
A former Air Force psychiatric technician and group home counselor for emotionally disturbed teens, Liberty lived with his wife, Lauren, a hospice care social worker, in a modest wood-frame house with a wrap-around porch and a small marijuana garden.
Liberty, 52, says the house itself wasn’t much to celebrate: three bedrooms, two baths and an outdated interior that looked like the backdrop to “bad 1970s porn.” But its Calaveras County setting was breathtaking, with his home looking out on an emerald-hued expanse of ponderosa pines and oaks.
Liberty, a local medical cannabis activist, had just expanded his personal cultivation from a handful of plants to 99 in hopes of supplementing his retirement income by selling marijuana to dispensaries in Calaveras and Santa Rosa. He never got the chance to harvest the crop.
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The Butte fire, the seventh-worst in California history, devoured his house and garden. It turned Liberty’s property – “our little heaven on Earth” – into a charred wasteland of blackened trees stripped of foliage.
“It just hurts to see it,” he said, recently walking the ground where his house had stood.
Yet the devastating blaze that scorched 71,000 acres and destroyed 860 houses and other buildings helped give birth to something else: some of California’s most tolerant local rules for permitting cultivation of medical marijuana for commercial sale.
On May 10, the Calaveras County Board of Supervisors approved an urgency ordinance that allows commercial marijuana gardens of up to one-quarter acre on properties of at least 2 acres and permits pot farms of one-half acre on properties of 4 acres or more.
The county, which had no previous regulations for marijuana growing, is expected to make the urgency ordinance permanent with additional details likely to be filled in and approved by supervisors in the coming year.
Among counties known for outdoor growing, the acreage allowed in Calaveras appears exceeded only by that in the legendary pot haven of Humboldt County. There, supervisors allowed new commercial marijuana farms of up to 10,000-square feet and voted to let existing outdoor growers cultivate up to a full acre – or 43,560 square feet.
The 4-1 vote in favor of the new Calaveras ordinance came after cannabis advocates presented board members with seemingly contradictory arguments about how the county should react to pot cultivation in the aftermath of the fire.
On one hand, they argued, a sanctioned local marijuana industry could provide an economic driver for Calaveras’ comeback. On the other, they warned, speculators with no local ties were snatching up fire-scorched properties on the cheap for pot farms and the county needed to stop it.
So supervisors set out to do both by creating a program to register established local medical marijuana growers and stop the land rush by outsiders.
Property owners who had existing marijuana gardens before May 10 have until June 30 to sign up for the county program, under which they will pay annual program fees of $5,000 each. Liberty, who lives in temporary housing in the county, says several applicants have been fire victims. Some grew marijuana beforehand. Others put plants in the ground afterward for extra income.
“It’s a very weird part of the recovery,” said Liberty, who applied for two cultivation permits, one for his existing property and a second for another site. “We had a lot of people lose their homes and possessions, and they either had insufficient insurance or no insurance at all. And many people saw this as a way of coming back.”
Money from an anticipated 200 registered commercial marijuana farms is expected to fund $1 million in oversight costs for a cannabis-inspection program to ensure compliance with planting restrictions, proper water use and respect for the environment. Staff to be hired will include two sheriff’s deputies and a sergeant, a compliance attorney, code enforcement officers, an agricultural biologist and an environmental health technician.
In addition, Calaveras County voters are expected to vote on a marijuana tax in November that would impose a $2-per-square-foot annual levy on outdoor commercial gardens – the vast majority of the county’s cultivation – and a $5-per-square-foot fee on indoor grows.
The measure could bring in $4 million in new tax revenue to the county of 45,000 residents if the new rules resulted in 200 commercial pot farms averaging 10,000 square feet – or just under a quarter-acre – of plants. For now, the growing permits apply only to medical marijuana and not to recreational use, which could be approved by California voters in November.
The Calaveras regulations were made possible by state medical marijuana legislation signed signed by Gov. Jerry Brown last year. The state rules provided a framework allowing cities and counties to set local taxes and permitting standards for marijuana cultivation or pot business or choose to ban such operations.
Calaveras Supervisor Chris Wright, whose district included much of the Butte Fire damage area as well as numerous marijuana farms, said the state rules “signaled the evolution of a very slow march to legalization” as well as potential benefits for an economically challenged county.
The Butte Fire had followed generations of economic decline in the once bustling gold mining county. The county’s legendary Sheep Ranch mine closed in 1942. Sawmills shuttered throughout the 1970s. A major employer, the Calaveras Cement Co. closed in 1983. That left ranching and Gold Country tourism as the prime local industries – other than unregulated pot gardens.
“It created an opportunity for this new industry to come out of the shadows, and that creates opportunities for rural counties,” Wright said of California’s new medical marijuana regulations. “We don’t have a lot of industry. We don’t have a lot of economic growth. In my view, this can be a sustainable economy.”
The county’s endorsement of marijuana commerce came over the objections of the district attorney and the sheriff. They had called for an outright ban on marijuana cultivation, saying they feared the county was already overrun with pot farms, including criminal networks operating on remote wooded properties. They said things were getting worse after the fire.
We don’t have a lot of industry. We don’t have a lot of economic growth. In my view, this can be a sustainable economy.
Calaveras Supervisor Chris Wright on the county’s new marijuana cultivation policy
In October, two brothers, Leon Grammer, 38, and Jeremiah Barrett, 30, were arrested on charges of shooting and killing three men who were apparently trying to steal marijuana from a local pot farm.
Last month, narcotics officers raided a vast garden planted by growers who had trespassed onto private land, illegally siphoning water from a pond and planting 10,000 marijuana seedlings. On June 1, deputies cut down 3,500 plants on another illegal trespass grow. No suspects were arrested in either case.
“We go out and start searching the area by air (for hidden marijuana farms) and, when we fly over, they leave. They know the jig is up,” said Calaveras Sheriff Rick Dibasilio. “By the time we get to the property, they’re gone.”
Arguing against commercial growing, Dibasilio warned supervisors about negative environmental impacts and his fears of residents encountering armed growers protecting pot farms.
But cannabis farmer Caz Tomaszewski, a 31-year-old former collegiate rower at the University of Puget Sound, argued that a cultivation ban would do nothing to drive out unwanted criminal growers.
Tomaszewski is the executive director of the Calaveras Cannabis Alliance, a group he says advocates for the “social and economic benefits” of a locally regulated marijuana trade. He said the new commercial cultivation rules will provide a valuable tool for law enforcement “because they’re going to have a very clear idea who is in the (regulated) system and who isn’t.”
“And the amount of tax income that could be generated from this is pretty substantial,” he added.
While Calaveras adopted pot-friendly regulations, approaches to governing marijuana cultivation vary widely across California.
Near Sacramento, supervisors in Nevada County recently banned all outdoor and commercial marijuana cultivation, only to have local voters overwhelmingly reject a June ballot measure that supported the ban. Community meetings are underway to draft new rules.
The city of Sacramento is readying a plan to permit limited indoor commercial cultivation, while revenue-starved communities in the Southern California desert are racing to approve millions of square feet of marijuana warehouses. But a vast majority of California cities and counties are resisting such operations, including counties of Sacramento, Placer and Yuba – which have banned outdoor or commercial marijuana operations.
But now in Calaveras, the once-resistant sheriff is dispatching deputies with county officials to informally visit marijuana farms to let growers know about the permitting deadline, new rules and future compliance inspections.
“They are just ‘knock and talks’ to let people know we’re going to be out there checking,” Dibasilio said. “We’re trying to work with these folks.”
Once the program is in effect, sheriff’s officers and officials from multiple county agencies will conduct inspections to ensure gardens comply with square footage limits, have legally obtained water sources and aren’t fouling the environment with sediments, fertilizers, pesticides or other contaminants. The county can impose $1,000-a-day administrative fines until corrections are made.
Among those eager to work with the program is Mark Bolger, 28, who grew up in an agricultural community near Stockton and went on to become a medical marijuana grower in Calaveras.
Well before supervisors took up the issue, Bolger had invited state water board officers and county land use and environmental officials to visit his terraced, one-half acre marijuana garden.
It sits on a sprawling property with a processing room and electric-powered trimming machines that harvest hundreds of pounds of marijuana each fall. Wearing leather boots, jeans, a plaid shirt and a ranch cap over short-trimmed hair, Bolger walks his cannabis garden with the authority of a professional farmer.
Bolger says he files state and federal tax withholding statements for his three workers (though the employee forms don’t state the nature of the business.) He says he is excited to start paying taxes and fees to Calaveras County – in his case, more than $45,000 annually, including cultivation taxes and program costs.
“Taxes equal job security with this industry,” Bolger said. “This is helping support our community.”
With his long, scraggly gray hair, Liberty looks more the part of the old-fashioned hippie pot grower, even though he worked decades in a traditional career. Influenced by his wife’s work with hospice patients, he later became involved with a local collective that raised marijuana for terminally and seriously ill residents.
Now a commercial grower, Liberty sees marijuana as perhaps his only hope for rebuilding after the ravaging Butte Fire.
The family’s insurance policy didn’t cover the replacement costs for Liberty’s home. He also couldn’t emotionally fathom returning there to live, he said. He and Lauren plan to sell the property, the place where they thought they would live out their retirement.
They invested the insurance settlement on an undeveloped property that wasn’t scorched by fire, choosing a larger hilltop setting – this one expansive enough to allow the maximum half-acre marijuana garden under county rules.
There, they hope to generate enough income from a newly planted marijuana farm – plus the current plants on their original property – to be able to build a house at the second site.
“The role that cannabis is playing in the recovery can’t be understated,” he said.