California's National Guard Targets Outlaw Pot Growers - Legal Growers Just Hope They Don't Miss
Legal marijuana companies are cautiously welcoming California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s announcement that 150 National Guard troops will deploy to Northern California to “go after illegal cannabis farms,” but the news also is kindling fears in some industry circles of a renewed, government-led drug war.
Many legal marijuana companies have long argued that illicit operators pose a major threat to their bottom line -- and a widespread law enforcement conundrum for the state at large. However, some of California’s legal cannabis companies remain unclear about how the National Guard effort will proceed, and the state has yet to offer clear-cut answers.
- Parallels drawn to the decades-old Campaign Against Marijuana Planting program (CAMP) have some worried about a “drug war 2.0” because in years past, CAMP arguably victimized many of the same MJ farmers who are now legal and licensed.
- Cannabis companies also are looking for clarity from the state about how the deployment will be managed to ensure it doesn’t unintentionally interfere with legal marijuana businesses.
- It’s also unclear whether the deployment may lead to raids on some farms that may be out of compliance with state industry rules but are still transitioning and trying to become part of the legal market.
Memories of CAMP, in particular, are triggering alarms. “CAMP … sends shivers up my spine just hearing it,” said John Brower, a cannabis industry consultant in Trinity County, which comprises the Emerald Triangle along with Humboldt and Mendocino counties.
Scars left by CAMP
National Guard troops are already involved in at least two anti-narcotics efforts: CAMP, as well as the National Guard’s Counterdrug Task Force (CDTF). CAMP is a joint program involving 10 state and federal agencies, including the California National Guard. It’s separate from the CDTF.
While the order that Newsom signed last week bolstered Guard personnel for the CDTF, Humboldt County Sheriff William Honsal called the move a “carryover of the ‘CAMP’ program.”
The state attorney general’s office announced 52 arrests last October made via CAMP in connection with illegal marijuana grows across California. Honsal’s comments tying the new National Guard effort to CAMP raised eyebrows in the legal Northern California MJ farming community. Growers there support enforcement against violent gangs and “trespass grows” on public lands -- but the reference carries mental scars from years of “abusive” raids by CAMP agents.
“Abusive” is a word multiple sources used to describe CAMP’s heyday from 1983 to the early 2000s. “The abuses of the CAMP program have left some long-lasting wounds in our community, and those wounds aren’t all healed,” Brower said.
The mission is unclear
Asked to clarify the new CDTF mission’s scope, Newsom’s press office referred Marijuana Business Daily to the initial news release, dated Feb. 11. Under Newsom’s order, troops assigned to the CDTF would focus on combating “transnational crime organizations engaged in the illegal trafficking of firearms and narcotics.”
The order also noted that National Guard members assisted in the seizure of more than 71,000 pounds of “illegal cannabis” in 2018.
The governor’s office didn’t immediately answer follow-up questions -- such as whether the CDTF would possibly raid unlicensed grows on private lands or only illegal “trespass grows” on public lands. The 150 new troops assigned to the new mission represent a roughly 75 percent increase in personnel for the CDTF, which currently has “200-plus” soldiers and airmen, according to Lt. Col. Jonathan Shiroma, the California National Guard’s chief of media relations.
Regarding whether the CDTF would focus on illegal cannabis grows on both public and private lands, Shiroma wrote in an email: “This part of the mission is still being sorted out, whether the new deployment will be focused on eradicating ‘trespass grows’ on public lands or if it will also possibly be raiding unlicensed grows on private lands.” (To read more on what Shiroma shared with MJBizDailyabout the mission, click here.)
That has left industry stakeholders wondering how the National Guard redeployment will unfold. “I don’t think it’s clear to most people,” said Lindsay Robinson, executive director of the California Cannabis Industry Association. “There’s a lot of ambiguity. I don’t have that information, either. That’s certainly something we will be reaching out to the governor’s office to inquire about.”
Should mom-and-pops aiming to join the legal market be worried?
“We know that Gov. Newsom is supportive of the legal industry,” Robinson said. “So I’d be hard-pressed to believe that they will be going after small growers up there, but I don’t know. Our hope is that, if it is cartels and illegal trespass grows on public lands (targeted by the National Guard), that it in no way impacts the legal industry. It would be great to have more clarity on what their plan is, but it could be that they haven’t articulated it quite themselves.”
State Assembly Member Rob Bonta, an Oakland Democrat and marijuana industry ally, also is unclear about the details of the redeployment, but he doubts mom-and-pop farms trying to join the legal market have anything to fear.
“I think the details are still to come,” Bonta said. “I certainly hope it’s nothing like what happened before, with the CAMP enforcement and hardcore tactics. … That’s going to be for the (California) DOJ and the governor to decide, but knowing them, I don’t think that’s their intent.”
California’s legal MJ industry generally agrees that “trespass grows” and the resulting environmental harm from the perpetrators’ use of harmful chemicals and growing methods should not be tolerated. And there’s broader agreement, Robinson and others said, that unlicensed MJ businesses that undercut the legal market should be targeted, but legal farmers want assurances they’re not going to be reliving the failed drug war of yesteryear.
“We applaud Gov. Newsom’s allocating of resources to clean up these large illegal grows on public lands, and we think there needs to be a clear line of separation, between protecting our watershed and invading private property,” Brower said. “If the National Guard is going to jump back in, they have to be managed in a way that’s not stepping on the necks of these communities and citizens that have tried to do things right.”
Bonta added, “Certainly, nobody wants to go backward. But we can’t have no enforcement. And we’re trying to create some carrots to move into the legal cannabis marketplace, but there are going to have to be some sticks, too.”
John Schroyer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org