The hub of this sticky web of conflict is the local Board of Supervisors, who have struggled with sorting out a way to regulate exponentially rampant marijuana cultivation. The sounding board for public outcry, board meetings these days typically host a string of angry and impassioned citizens, in their most extreme iterations demanding either total eradication of the industry or a full embracing of marijuana growing as the surest path to economic development.
Like all counties in California, Trinity has been stymied at the intersection of federal law, defining marijuana as illegal, the legal grey area of state medical marijuana law, and the inexorable largess of California’s weed industry, estimated to be valued in the billions. Marijuana law has been a bog, both incomplete and contradictory. Without clear direction, there have been no guidelines for regulation, and no funding to support the effort — leaving local governments ill-equipped to take it on.
“It’s devastating the County. It’s ripping it apart,” says Supervisor John Fenley of the divisive effects of the marijuana industry on the community. “You have people thinking it’s their right to come in and do whatever they want on their land next to people who don’t want it, who didn’t move here to have a hundred, two hundred, three hundred plants growing next to them.”
The board has been in a difficult position, on one hand lacking the tools to manage what’s happening, and on the other holding responsibility to shape the role of the industry in the face of vibrantly differing factions. In this polarized environment the ability to define the problems is a challenge. It’s hard to differentiate between the impacts of the industry and who is participating, and to address the the complexity that prevents characterizing the ethics of growers in a uniform way.
“The constituents that I have, that I know do grow cannabis,” explains Supervisor Fenley, “might grow more plants than they are supposed to, but they are aware of their neighbors, they are very much part of the community. They care so deeply about the community and about each other. Those are the most incredible, wonderful people that are part of this community. It’s the boys and girls that don’t want to play by the rules, that are here to make a buck, that have given these people (a bad reputation). That’s the devastating part of this.”
In practice the board is pretty limited in its ability to address the vast scope of farming. With no state frameworks to lean on, the primary way local governments attempt regulation is through health codes and land use ordinances, which is what the Trinity County board did through the crafting of a land use marijuana ordinance. This ordinance provided cultivation guidelines by linking garden size to acreage and zoning. Under this system, the county could remove marijuana gardens in violation through a civil process known as abatement.
But the board didn’t have the funding or capacity to actively enforce it. Trinity County is insanely resource-strapped. They lacked the basics– staff for citations, inspections, paperwork and billing, the components needed to actually make it go. And the county struggled with effective organizing and direction. In the end, the ordinance was simply not enforced. From 2008 to 2014, there were no abatements enacted, even though the overwhelming majority of marijuana farms violated county code.
With nothing to back it up, the county ordinance had no teeth. A plant count of 8 precluded profitability, and with little risk of county intervention, the ordinance was almost universally ignored, contributing to the general sense of lawlessness. The end result was that farming continued on unchecked. More people farmed, gardens got bigger, and the upset about farming intensified.
In response to the ever-increasing number of marijuana farms, in the summer of 2015 a strong outcry from citizens to enforce county code prompted the board to look anew at the functionality of their abatement systems with the objective of increasing enforcement.
During this same year, California legalized medicinal marijuana and unveiled a new regulatory framework that gave farming a stamp of legitimacy, requiring the board to reevaluate their ordinances and the way they align with state regulation. These changes invigorated a new politically active set of growers who began advocating for permissive and functional land use policies, and gave farmers a louder, and more savvy voice at the local policy table.
“They seem to have a different attitude about it,” says Supervisor Judy Morris of recent growers engaging the board, “They don’t have this sense of entitlement, they want to have this working relationship with you. In the past they had this big stance that they didn’t understand land use which is what we are charged with at the county level.”
In this time of transitions, the board has become a primary interface for culture and law. Fielding cries for more crackdowns on the industry and for the support of marijuana farming and economy, the board is trying to strike a balance that addresses the problems while offering a stable future.
“Some folks I’ve met recently they just have some great environmental knowledge,” says Morris, “they want to be engaged which is really nice to see. I think there are going to be those who want to be part of the solution, and those who have no desire to be part of the solution or the community.”
As the board begins the task of defining land use and the subsequent scale of the marijuana industry, they are charged with uniting a community around something that has been painfully divisive. Marijuana policy is moving forward, but the perception of it is still varied, accepted by some and not others. In this way the board is shepherding the social, ethical and cultural changes surfacing in their communities.
“Well, it’s definitely changed the demographic of the county. It brought in a younger demographic,” says Supervisor Keith Groves of marijuana farming, “It’s brought in the marijuana culture which is very foreign to a lot of the old-timers here. I think there is a lot of uncomfortableness with the old guard, with [long-term residents] and people that have moved here to retire. We see that especially in my district. We have a lot of retired people that don’t want a lot of this industry’s actions around them. They came here to relax and sit by the river and finish their life.”
As marijuana farming gains legitimacy and popularity, the perception of it evolves. The board is part of the shifting role of marijuana in their county, both experiencing and observing its developments.
“You know we can learn the lessons from the appeal of alcohol prohibition,” observes Supervisor Keith Groves, “There still was a large stigma […] into the 50’s even. You know, people would have their bottle of port but it would be hidden. You didn’t offer somebody a drink. And there are still areas in this country where there is a stigma against alcohol. So, I mean […] there will be a stigma for thirty, forty years, I’m sure.”
The board is currently grappling with the conflicting desires of its constituents, and the volatility of the situation is both intense and transitory, a momentary explosive blast– fiery, heated, and soon to expire. The regulatory writing is on the wall, pointing the way to recreational legalization. So while the terms of pot farming are currently controversial, that controversy will soon be dated.