Federal, state, local laws collide over medical marijuana grow in Winters

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WINTERS — When Winters farmer Ravi Tumber got a green light from Yolo County Agriculture Commissioner John Young to grow medical marijuana rather than tomatoes in the hydroponic structures on his property just off Highway 128, he thought he was good to go.

Tumber was told by county staff that he’d followed all the rules and gotten all the necessary permits, and so he proceeded to lease a greenhouse and an outdoor plot to a Sacramento grower connected to a legal medical marijuana cooperative, who also had the necessary paperwork in place.

Tumber and the grower were wrong — or so said the Trident Drug Task Force, which caught wind of Tumber’s operation from a neighbor who didn’t approve of what was taking place there. Trident presented an affidavit to Yolo Superior Court Judge David Reed, who approved a warrant to raid the property.

And raid they did.

On Sept. 14, Trident sent a small army of vehicles to Tumber’s property, and an estimated 30 to 40 armed officers stormed the place, holding two tenants on the property who had nothing to do with the growing operation face-down on the ground at gunpoint. According to Tumber, before all this transpired, the officers cut the wires on all of his security cameras and recorders.

(Trident is a federally supported task force that is composed of agents from the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Department, Auburn Police Department, Rocklin Police Department, Placer County Sheriff’s Department, Placer County District Attorney’s Office, California Highway Patrol, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Homeland Security, Bureau of Land Management and California National Guard.)

While the raid at the grow site was taking place, another team of officers arrived at Tumber’s Solano County residence, kicked in the door and went through his personal files and cell phone. Agents also simultaneously raided the Sacramento-area homes of Ted Hicks and Ryan Mears, who leased an acre of land from Tumber for their marijuana grow.

“I told them look at whatever you want — I have nothing to hide,” says Tumber, emphasizing that he cooperated with the officers.

Finding nothing of interest in Tumber’s home, the officers confiscated all of the outdoor plants being grown by Tumber’s lessee at the farm site in Yolo County.

No arrests were made during the raid. However, the Yolo County District Attorney’s Office later charged Hicks and Mears with conspiracy to commit sales of marijuana, a felony, and a misdemeanor count of cultivation of marijuana. They are scheduled for arraignment on Thursday, Jan. 19, in Yolo Superior Court.

According to Brandon Olivera, task force commander with Trident, the agency was aware that the plants being grown were intended for medical use, which is legal in Yolo County, and that Tumber and his lessee had completed the necessary county paperwork to grow here. However, Olivera said, they were lacking a particular state license.

When asked if Trident could not simply have issued Tumber a warning to complete the missing paperwork, he replied, “We had a warrant.”

Dennis Chambers, chief deputy agriculture commissioner for Yolo County, confirms that Tumber did, in fact, have all of the documentation required by the county to operate a medical cannabis growing operation, including necessary water permits and a business license, and says he does not know which state license Olivera is referring to.

Chambers was alerted to the raid as it was taking place. He called Trident and spoke with one of the officers on site, informing him that Tumber’s operation was legal and licensed by Yolo County. The officer laughed and replied, “There’s a whole lot of plants here” and hung up on him.

Chambers called back again, and spoke with another officer, who informed him that “the plants are down,” and it was too late to do anything about it. He added that the county counsel or agriculture office received “no notification whatsoever” about the planned raid. Since that time, Chambers said county officials and the DA’s office have been made aware of the situation, but have not come to any conclusions yet.

Crossing counties

How and why did an agency from another county cross into a county where medical cannabis cultivation is legal and start raiding property? That’s what Yolo County Supervisor Don Saylor, who represents the Winters area, would like to know.

Noting that Yolo County adopted an interim ordinance in March to permit the cultivation of medical marijuana in unincorporated areas of Yolo County, Saylor said the raid was “a highly coordinated operation involving simultaneous invasions of a farm west of Winters and three private homes.”

“The accounts I have heard are that during the course of the raids, the people at the farm and homes told the officers that they had cultivation permits issued by Yolo County,” Saylor said. “A member of the Yolo County Agriculture Department called the officers on scene to inform them that cultivation at the site was permitted.

“That was disregarded. Doors were bashed in, guns were drawn in at least one location, (farm) workers were restrained by zip-tie restraints.”

Saylor said accounts of the incident reveal that at least one member of the Yolo County drug enforcement team, YONET, was on the scene, but this was not a Yolo County operation.

“While a warrant was requested and provided by a Yolo judge, I am concerned that officials from another county have conducted this operation within Yolo County and that they disregarded the legal permits issued by Yolo County,” Saylor said. “To date, no specific legal charges have been brought against anyone and we are told that the investigation is ongoing. Nevertheless, the crop has been destroyed.

“It seems to me that the destruction of a legally permitted crop without consideration of the legal permit in place for medical cultivation presents a potential violation of due process rights. This action has resulted in loss of property, damage to personal residences and farming implements, and trauma to persons,” he continued.

“While the raid appears to have been conducted under color of legal authority, I think we must question the legitimacy of this operation as we work to reduce illegal cultivation through regulations and permitting.”

Yolo County DA responds

Yolo County District Attorney Jeff Reisig acknowledges that the conflicts between federal, state and local laws are frustrating for law enforcement as well as the public.

“It’s kind of a mess right now,” he said, but noted that medical marijuana cultivation still isn’t allowed on the open commercial market. Crops must be intended for legal cooperatives, collectives or dispensaries, and destined for medical use only, and growers cannot grow more plants than those cooperatives, collectives or dispensaries can use.

“Before you put a seed in the ground, you have to have a connection to a lawful cooperative or collective established,” Reisig said. “If you’re not in compliance with that law, you are committing a crime. You can’t grow weed for profit.”

The DA’s criminal complaint alleges that Hicks and Mears gathered 250 applications for their Big Red Farms collective last spring at HempCon, a San Francisco cannabis festival, but “never made any arrangements to disperse marijuana to any of the attendees who filed out purported applications at HempCon.”

“The marijuana wasn’t grown yet. They put the cart before the horse,” Sacramento defense attorney Mark Reichel, who represents Hicks and Mears, said of law enforcement. “Our position is, they (Hicks and Mears) followed the rules completely. I don’t think law enforcement understands the law.”

Although Reisig admits that the current growing laws are “a quagmire,” he said, “Ignorance of the law is no defense. There’s a lot of confusion at a lot of different levels. Until the law changes, it’s going to continue to be a mess.”

Reisig said the California Attorney General’s Office needs to clear up the cultivation laws, and until that happens, law enforcement can only enforce the existing laws.

As for what appears to be overkill in the Winters raid, Reisig pointed out that before the days of legalized medical marijuana cultivation, law enforcement basically had one template for marijuana cultivation and task force raids, and it involved criminals, remote illegal grow sites and the potential for violence, as well as harm to officers. Therefore, law enforcement conducts raids with large task forces and storms in by surprise.

“That’s what they did in this situation,” he said, noting that the task force, having been granted the warrant by a judge, had “probable cause that a felony was committed on the property.”

State, federal response

State Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, suggested that growers be given a checklist that includes not only county regulations, but also state regulations as well as any pertinent environmental and land-use restrictions.

“There needs to be more transparency at the state and local level,” he said.

Dodd said non-local agencies seeking to perform raids in another county should notify local authorities before proceeding. As for the Sept. 14 raid in Winters, Dodd characterized the incident as “harassment.”

“We’re all in this together,” he said, adding that the Winters raid seemed like a case of “Ready, fire, aim.”

Like Reisig, Dodd said the laws regarding medical marijuana cultivation must be addressed at the statewide level, beginning at the Attorney General’s Office.

“The attorney general needs to be made aware of this,” he said of the Winters incident, adding that it likely won’t be the only such situation in the midst of confusion about marijuana cultivation laws.

Tumber himself briefed Rep. John Garamendi about the raid, citing the trauma of being treated like a criminal when he believed he’d been complying with the law.

While expressing sympathy, Garamendi noted that federal law classifies marijuana in the same category as heroin or LSD, and although changes to the opiate laws has been discussed at the congressional level, “it hasn’t gone anywhere.” Noting that “legal” growing for medical purposes has “come into play,” he added that moves to update the federal laws are “not active.”

But, Garamendi said, that may change. There is a need for “a very rapid and significant change” in federal marijuana laws, particularly as state after state marches forward to legalize not only medical but recreational marijuana. The passage of recreational laws, he said, “is going to force change in all of this.” But, he noted, “Don’t expect it to be easily accomplished.”

“I predict it will be a state issue to work out for some time to come,” the congressman added.

“Stand by,” Garamendi told Tumber. “It’s a good time to be patient.”

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