Code enforcement officers say they’re not cops and shouldn’t go after pot growers

Rachel Sutherland strapped on a bulletproof vest with a badge on one shoulder and her name on the other during Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors hearing on banning commercial marijuana cultivation. Emblazoned in yellow block lettering across the back is her job: CODE ENFORCEMENT.

“Looking at me, now, I look like a peace officer,” Sutherland said. “If you ask us to do drug enforcement activity work, please understand that though we may dress like police officers, we are not police officers. We’re not peace officers.”

Sutherland spoke as Sacramento County supervisors were considering an ordinance banning all commercial marijuana cultivation and selling in the unincorporated county.

Under the state’s Adult Use of Marijuana Act, passed by voters in November, the county retains the ability to outlaw commercial marijuana businesses, including outdoor and indoor grows. Medical marijuana cultivation and businesses were already outlawed under county code.

The ordinance passed 3-1, with Supervisor Patrick Kennedy voting “no” and Supervisor Phil Serna absent.

Under the state law, local governments have to allow individuals to grow up to six plants indoors. The county’s ordinance allows for nine, as long as they’re secured out of sight and approved by the property owner.

Complaints about people growing marijuana go to the county’s code enforcement department, which then sends a notice that an officer will be inspecting the property in five days.

In the past four years, code enforcement cases involving marijuana have more than tripled, from 140 in 2013 to 471 in 2016, according to data from the department.

Sutherland and her colleague Ricardo Garcia told the board that some of the county’s code enforcement officers feel very unsafe doing work that would bring them into frequent contact with people growing or manufacturing drugs on a large scale.

“At this point, we’re inspecting full-on grow operations,” Sutherland said. “Grow operations that are being operated by gangs, by the cartel. These are criminal operations and we have code-enforcement officers out there enforcing on these people.”

Code enforcement Chief Barry Chamberlain said a Sacramento County sheriff’s deputy goes with code enforcement officers to inspect properties suspected of growing marijuana.

“If a sheriff’s officer is not available, we don’t go out,” he said. “Our officers are not going to go out to these grows without a sheriff’s officer.”

But a code enforcement officer doesn’t necessarily know if they’re walking into a marijuana-growing situation, he said. They could be approaching a home for a different code complaint and discover a growing operation.

“We could walk into this at any time,” he said. “(The vests) are just one more safety tool.”

Sutherland said she gets mistaken as a police officer on a daily basis while wearing the vest, and the confusion makes her afraid for her safety.

“Truly, this is drug enforcement activity,” she said. “This is not simple zoning inspections, and our officers feel that it is inappropriate and irresponsible to simply add marijuana restrictions to our zoning code and expect that our officers are able to safely enforce this going forward.”

Chamberlain said the department is still working out how to handle large-scale commercial grows.

“Moving forward we’ll work with the Sheriff’s Department, figure out a plan where we can actually have a sheriff’s officer with all of our officers when they do inspections,” he told the board. Supervisors directed their staff to work with code enforcement and the Sheriff’s Department to address Sutherland’s concerns.

Supervisor Kennedy said he didn’t think the ordinance was the right approach to the ballooning number of grows.

“I’ve got hundreds of grow houses, some of them yielding $3 million a year in the neighborhoods, with the ancillary crime that comes with that,” he said. “I need to get it out of the residential neighborhoods.”

Kennedy said he would vote against the ordinance because he feels that allowing heavily regulated commercial grows in some areas of the county is the only way to move them out of his district.

“Until we do that, make it so that it’s not as profitable to do these in neighborhoods, I just don’t see the situation getting better in the residences,” he said.

The Sacramento City Council chose a different tack – 30 dispensaries currently operate in the city of Sacramento.

Last Monday, the city began accepting applications under a regulatory framework allowing indoor grows in light industrial areas. That day, officials received more than 70 applications from potential growers. The council is expected to approve rules for other pot businesses, including product manufacturers, testing labs and delivery services.

Sacramento is expecting to raise $6.3 million in new fees from the marijuana industry. About $5.4 million is expected to go towards new staff to enforce regulations.

Ellen Garrison: 916-321-1920, @EllenGarrison

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