If you are farming marijuana in Hayfork, there is relative safety in numbers. To describe the Trinity County Sheriff’s department as underfunded is a wild understatement. The Sheriff’s department estimates 2500 marijuana grows exist in Hayfork and its Trinity Pines subdivision alone. Countywide, law enforcement estimates the total number of grows in the county approaches 10,000.
Currently sheriff’s department deputies number just 8. Coverage for the entire county is provided by 1-4 officers at any given time. The department faces a hard reality about what can actually be done. Marijuana is only one of many competing priorities, stacked up against other more egregious criminal activity that poses a greater risk to public safety. It doesn’t always take priority.
“I have to constantly remind people that we don’t just deal with marijuana,” explains Trinity County Sheriff Bruce Haney, “we deal with murders, rapes, assaults, domestic violence. We deal with all of that.”
Haney is frustrated by the lack of capacity that prevents the Sheriff’s Department from managing marijuana, and from demonstrating a greater presence to the illegal growing community.
“I think the message needs to be sent,” Haney says, “the reason why we’re in the boat that we are in right now is because that message has never been sent to anyone.”
For criminal marijuana cases prioritization boils down to a tension between the threat to the public and circumstance. But the logistics of evidence, immediate need, and situation make a systematic prioritization of the worst offenders difficult.
“It’s how it falls,” says Omar Brown, Trinity County Sheriff’s Deputy “what’s brought across my desk for one reason or another. I don’t prioritize. I would never be able to get anything done. Because why would I do a 500 plant grow when I could do a 650 plant grow, you know, so then why would I do that when there could be an 800 plant grow?”
In circumstances where so much of the population is engaging in illegal activity, it becomes harder to identify where the problems really are, to gather evidence, and to address them.
Law enforcement is also just one arm of the legal system. Criminal prosecution and regulation systems require two streams of funding— one for law enforcement and one for judicial systems. In the familiar blues song of the rural and underfunded, the Trinity County court system is also hampered by a lack of funds. Sinking under an abundance of cases, the Trinity County court often takes a lengthy amount of time to address criminal marijuana cases, and like the Sherriff’s department, needs to prioritize cases that are most relevant to public safety. So even if the Sheriff’s Department does take action, prosecution isn’t always a sure thing. Sometimes cases don’t make it to court for months or even years.
“I’m not faulting the DA (District Attorney) because he’s in the same boat,” says Haney, “he has to prioritize. We have a six-hundred plant marijuana case that’s been sitting on his desk scheduled to go to trial, but he’s got three murder trials. So guess where that one’s going to – the bottom of the list.”
As a result of systemic funding and capacity issues, marijuana cultivation has become a creeping issue for the Sheriff’s department. Over time, the absence of enforcement has allowed cultivation to escalate. Not only are more people farming, but their gardens are bigger.
“There are big grows and small grows, but the average is 150-200 plants,” says Brown, “We can’t do search warrants on everything that size. We’re so far behind. If we had had (more capacity) ten years ago we would be looking at 36 plant grows.”
In the end, the sheer prevalence of farming makes it impossible to address the many people doing it illegally. The inability for law enforcement to maintain a strong presence creates a sense of lawlessness, and marijuana production booms– more people farm, and they farm bigger. And the staff of 8 deputies are left to do triage, doing what they can while Hayfork’s hotbox of marijuana farming percolates.