California Weed

Once pot-permissive, Calaveras County officially bans commercial cannabis cultivation

Two years ago, the Calaveras County Board of Supervisors saw marijuana farming as a way to lift their Sierra foothills community out of the economic despair that had deepened because of a massive wildfire.

Now, a new board has voted to ban commercial cannabis cultivation, a decision that will affect about 200 permitted growers and many others who applied for permits after the county encouraged the industry to locate there. Supervisors have said they are responding to concerns about pollution and crime, claims the growers dispute.

Calaveras County joins Placer, El Dorado and a number of other Sierra foothill counties with bans on commercial cultivation, leaving Sacramento and Yolo County as some of the few jurisdictions allowing it.

The Calaveras County decision is expected to lead to lawsuits from growers who paid taxes and permit fees to the county and now are expected to stop operations within 30 days.

“The bait and switch a week after my wife and I paid the painful tax is heartbreaking,” grower Jeremy Maddux said.

The county previously had collected millions of dollars in fees from marijuana farmers and hired additional police and staff while budgeting services with expectations of additional cannabis tax revenues.

Since the new board’s election in November 2016, including new supervisors who had campaigned to ban the industry, the debate over commercial cannabis had divided the rural community of 45,000. Supporters said the industry had brought jobs and money to the county.

The division was reflected in the board’s 3-2 vote Wednesday night in favor of the ban. Supervisor Jack Garamendi, who was in support of regulating the growers, said disagreement over the size of the grows was the only issue that stopped the board from approving regulations.

Following the vote, one man in the audience cursed the swing vote on the board, Supervisor Gary Tofanelli, and waved his middle finger at him.

During the meeting, a woman reportedly slapped a man in the audience, leading Tofanelli to order the board chambers cleared while sheriff’s deputies interviewed the two people. No charges were filed.

Later Tofanelli defended his vote in favor of the ban. He said he had joined the board in 2016 wanting a ban but reconsidered and worked for regulations instead.

“I was a leader,” he said. “I compromised.”

Grower Prapanna Smith was less than convinced about Tofanelli, saying he reneged on a promise to vote for regulations. Smith retired from a career as an educator in San Diego and moved to Calaveras County in 2011 to take up cannabis farming.

“He obviously has no honor. I’ll never shake his slimy hand again!” Smith wrote on his Facebook page Thursday morning, after his “first night 100 percent sleep-free in years.”

Related stories from Sacramento Bee