The Great Cannabis Clash of Calaveras County

Published on August 1, 2017 · Last updated July 28, 2020

In May, an organization representing cannabis farmers in Calaveras County, California—a rural enclave of 45,000 souls in the state’s historic gold country foothills—tried to buy the local police department an extra cop.

The farmers’ offer was not well received.

For the last three years, the public high school in Angels Camp, the county’s lone incorporated city, had been without a school resource officer. The school—Bret Harte Union High School, after the Gold Rush-era writer—once had a police officer on campus, but then the money had run out.

The county has been without an anchor employer industry since a cement plant closed in the early 1980s.

California’s boosters love to brag about “the world’s sixth-largest economy,” but such bounty is an abstraction in Calaveras, more than two hours’ drive east from San Francisco and about halfway between Lake Tahoe to the north and Yosemite National Park to the south. This year, county supervisors are grappling with a $3.6 million budget deficit, which has led to an understaffed jail. At the nadir of the Great Recession, unemployment soared to nearly 15% as nearly one in eight people lost their jobs. The jobless figure would have been higher were it not for the fact that half the people here are over 50 years old, and many are retirees, lured here in the 1990s by cheap land prices, golf courses, and senior-friendly housing developments.

The county has been without an anchor employer industry since a cement plant closed in the early 1980s. Aside from local government and a private hospital, the job market is almost entirely dependent on tourism. “It’s not that there are no decent employment opportunities here, it’s that they’re all taken,” said one longtime county resident and cannabis farmer. “You’re basically just waiting for someone to die.”

In 2015, the most recent year of California’s historic drought, a devastating wildfire swept through the region. More than 550 homes burned in the Butte Fire, a catastrophe that compelled some people to give up on life in the area, sell their land, and leave.

“Is this town not worth saving?”

The county’s name, Calaveras, is Spanish for “skulls,” a moniker granted, so the story goes, after an early European explorer found piles of human bones alongside a riverbank, later named the Rio de los Calaveras (literally, “river of skulls”). These days, with so many elderly residents and so few young people starting families, deaths are outpacing births by about 100 a year. And unlike other fast-growing California counties that have seen heavy a heavy migration of urban dwellers fleeing skyrocketing home prices, there aren’t enough newcomers moving to Calaveras to make up the difference. According to official state figures, the county has a negative growth rate.

To put it plainly: Skulls County is dying.

The city of Angels Camp itself, incorporated in 1912, is so poorly run, so corrupt, and there is so little interest among citizens in fixing it, that a grand jury recently suggested the city consider dissolution. That sparked a sorrowful plea in the Calaveras Enterprise, the local newspaper.

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“Where are you men who graduated from Bret Harte and are now enjoying your life here in Angels Camp?” wrote a retired city clerk. “Is this town not worth saving?”

Many who grew up here have an interest in rejuvenating the region. But today, the only thing booming in Calaveras County is cannabis.

(Chris Roberts for Leafly)

Weather in the foothills—hot days, cool nights, bone-dry almost nine months of the year—is ideal for growing the plant. Some horticulturists say it is the absolute best climate on the planet for cannabis.

Like most other rural areas of the state, marijuana has been grown here for decades with varying degrees of subterfuge. At least one major brand, Bloom Farms, has been based here for several years. Its CEO, Mike Ray, is a Calaveras County local, born and bred.

Following the devastation caused by the 2015 Butte Fire, when land was available on the cheap, growers shut out of the state’s Emerald Triangle “pot basket” flocked here. Ray, who weathered years of record-breaking drought only to lose his childhood home and entire 99-plant crop in the blaze, rebuilt and kept his business in the county. He now employs 50 people, with 10 working directly on the farm.

Some marijuana green-rushers bought land and set up sophisticated farms. Others, as the Sacramento Bee reported, merely parked old RVs on burned-out lots and started growing—in some cases, growing hundreds of plants on small, two-acre plots next to modest suburban homes.

According to the county planning department, there are now as many as 1,600 “commercial” cannabis farms in the county. By one estimate, a study conducted by academics from the University of the Pacific, in nearby Stockton, more than 2,600 people are now employed in the county’s cannabis trade.

If those figures are accurate, marijuana is easily the number one industry in Calaveras County. And even if they’re not, cannabis is already helping to balanced the county’s ailing books.

Last summer, officials confronted the obvious: Weed was the only thing going in Calaveras, so weed should be the centerpiece of the county’s recovery after the fire. Beginning last May, officials started handing out permits for some of the largest legal cannabis plantings in California: up to half an acre. (For context’s sake, a thousand plants—more than enough for a skilled grower, with help, to grow a literal ton in a season—can easily fit on one acre.)

More than 700 growers paid $5,000 apiece for the privilege.

In six months, marijuana brought in $3.7 million to Calaveras County. That’s in permit fees alone. Under a new cultivation tax—$2 per square foot of grow space for outdoor, $5 per square foot for indoor—the county is projected to rake in millions more this year and next. And if the county were to complement its wine and tourism trades with cannabis—with attractions like tours and tastings, like the ones big-thinking growers in Humboldt and Mendocino counties envision—it could mean even bigger things.

Calaveras could be the next Emerald Triangle.

“Calaveras really has the opportunity to be the Napa of cannabis,” Ray of Bloom Farms told me. “It’s two hours and fifteen minutes from downtown San Francisco. Humboldt has the volume and the title of the largest cultivator epicenter, but it’s six hours away. Nobody’s going to go up there. We could bring in tourism, hotels, restaurants.”

At the same time, marijuana has meant a mad rush of moneyed outsiders into what had been a sleepy, desiccated, and slowly crumbling community. This has caused a “panic” among locals, one grower told me.

“This was not what anyone wanted,” he said.

“Calaveras really has the opportunity to be the Napa of cannabis.”
“Calaveras really has the opportunity to be the Napa of cannabis.”
Which brings us back to cannabis and cops. In the spring, the Calaveras Cannabis Alliance (CCA), an advocacy group for the local industry, put up $60,000 to help replace Bret Harte High School’s lost on-campus cop. The Enterprise called it a “hefty” and “significant” offer, likening it to any other kind of munificence from a well-to-do business looking to “give back,” like the local Chamber of Commerce or some nearby wineries.

But in May, the Angels Camp City Council voted to reject the check. Marijuana is federally illegal, they reasoned, and the town or school might somehow get in trouble.

It was the flimsiest of premises, considering that the state of California accepts hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes from marijuana sellers, and—as the city attorney told the Council—taking out Angels Camp isn’t likely to ever land on Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s to-do list.

If the CCA really wanted to help, the Council suggested, it could instead spend its $60,000 on printing pamphlets describing how cannabis is harmful to the teenage brain.

It was the moral equivalent of a broke high school turning down money for a new track or new computers from Coca-Cola or Google and kindly telling the corporate sponsor to fund an anti-obesity or internet-addiction-awareness campaign instead.

“Everyone is willing to say what they don’t want. No one is willing to say what they do want.”

It wasn’t the first time the CCA, which doesn’t sell marijuana itself but takes contributions from organizations that do, saw its efforts at philanthropy cause trouble. And it was one of many times when people in Calaveras County told the marijuana industry, in plain language, that it would rather starve than accept a meal ticket paid for by cannabis. A few weeks earlier, a senior-citizens service organization had its budget process put on pause while lawyers pondered whether another gift from CCA—a car—should have been accepted.

On Election Day last fall, cannabis was the key issue on the ballot. While California voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 64, the state’s adult-use legalization measure, voters in Calaveras rejected it by more than a thousand votes, upward of two percentage points. Another local measure, which would have put regulations in place for commercial marijuana cultivation, was also rejected. Voters did approve the limited, square-footage-based tax on marijuana farms, however, which, according to a county estimate, could generate as much as $10 million a year.

“I do not want it,” one resident told the local paper, “but if it is here, we might as well tax it.”

Pushback continued to grow. Calaveras County is governed by a five-member Board of Supervisors. Because nearly all of Calaveras is unincorporated, county supervisor is the top elected post. Two supervisors who had supported the local cannabis industry were soon thrown out and replaced by anti-marijuana candidates who campaigned on the promise that, come spring, voters would have the chance to ban commercial marijuana cultivation outright.

Their campaigns were “reefer madness to the max, OK?” said Bob Bowerman, a former advertising executive and longtime cannabis activist who now runs the county chapter of NORML (and who ran for supervisor himself against a pro-ban candidate, losing by 351 votes). But the effort worked. Ancient arguments about marijuana’s social evils, coupled with the promise that voters could send the county’s marijuana farmers packing, were political winners.

To understand why, it’s important to remember who lives in rural California, with its open land for cattle ranching and tall trees to shade homesteads. “Back-to-the-land hippies and religious conservatives,” said Trevor Wittke, a lanky 30-something who serves as CCA’s executive director. Wittke grew up in the county and fell into the former category. Many of his schoolmates were in the latter and are now among those who want to outlaw commercial cannabis farms. “There’s a strong moral and religious conservative element to the ban,” Wittke told me.

“It’s absolutely driven by ideology—and by fear, in many ways,” added Jack Garamendi, a supervisor who held onto his seat in the last election despite supporting a regulated pot industry.

Garamendi ran through the numbers for me: Calaveras County is more than a thousand square miles. By growing cannabis on less than 180 acres—just 20% of a single square mile—the county “can generate more than $12 million in revenue for our schools, our libraries, law enforcement,” he said. “If you just look at the numbers, you’d say, ‘I don’t get this. This doesn’t make sense. Why wouldn’t you do this?’”

The promise to give cannabis the boot nearly came to pass. Organizers of an anti-cannabis campaign collected signatures from 5,220 voters in support of an outright ban. A special election, with the ban on the ballot, was scheduled for May 2. But growers narrowly avoided it after Bowerman filed a legal challenge, and in March a judge ruled that the ballot question was misleading. (By that point, the county had already printed ballots at an estimated cost of up to $40,000.)

Bob Bowerman, who runs the Calaveras County chapter of NORML, filed a lawsuit to disqualify a ballot question that would have banned cannabis businesses in the county. (Chris Roberts for Leafly)

Undaunted, the new anti-marijuana Board of Supervisors in April introduced a ban of its own. A vote could come before the end of September, just as the cannabis crop reaches maturity. The question will go to voters as soon as an environmental impact report, prepared by the planning department, is certified.

Judging by the board’s comments at a June 20 meeting, if the ban comes up for a vote, it will pass. And if it does, “it has the potential to bankrupt the county,” said Debbie Ponte, a former county supervisor who now runs a local business development organization in Angels Camp. “If there’s a ban, it dries up everything.”

If the ban goes through, there’s already talk of lawsuits and another special election, this one cooked up by the pro-marijuana set. It’s as if the entire cycle is repeating itself in mirror image.

Nearly every step of the process has been arduous—almost absurdly so. In late June, the county’s website was hacked by a group claiming allegiance to the Islamic State. While other county offices’ web presences are back online, the planning department—with its marijuana-related documents—has yet to be restored. In other words, the county’s most important government debate is being conducted primarily in analog.

In the meantime, cannabis is still the talk of the county, in competing letters to the editor printed in the Enterprise and in ongoing flame wars in the newspaper’s comments section and on Facebook.

“It’s been absolutely insane, and you can quote me on that,” said Caz Tomaszewski.

Tomaszewski, 32, is the CCA’s former executive director. A transplant from Sacramento, he moved to Calaveras to grow cannabis in February 2015. He’d worked in health care after a serious bout with a condition he described only as a “complex, chronic illness” in college, but found himself disaffected by an industry focused on pharmaceuticals.

He picked Calaveras over, say, Humboldt or Mendocino because it was not yet “damaged by decades of drug war.”

“It didn’t have the same culture of paranoia and greed, where people are afraid to talk to neighbors and afraid of cops and all that,” he told me.

If it didn’t then, it might now. Supervisor Dennis Mills, one of the newly elected leaders pushing for a ban, calls marijuana legalization “a great social experiment … gone wrong.” Mills did not return emails and phone messages from Leafly, but in a May interview published in the San Francisco Chronicle, he outlined the basic anti-marijuana script, often echoed in the Enterprise’s letters section: dogs barking, generators running all night, loud music blasting, and a certain unsavory element in Calaveras County that wasn’t there before.

“The commercial cultivation of marijuana has and will continue to bring a criminal element into our County,” proclaims the website of The Committee to Stop Commercial Cultivation, the organization behind the failed ban ballot initiative. The website’s homepage once displayed a banner headline thanking Attorney General Jeff Sessions for his bellicose anti-cannabis stance. Other sections issue dire warnings of “assaults, vandalism, [and] murders.”

The “committee” is mostly one man, a fixture at local board meetings named Bill McManus. He didn’t respond to a telephone message seeking comment.

(Chris Roberts for Leafly)

“Outside gangs and criminals have and will continue to come into our County to steal the mature marijuana plants during time of harvest,” the website declares. “Cartel gangs are currently illegally growing marijuana in Calaveras County.”

There’s scant evidence for most of those claims. While eradication teams do make routine busts of unlicensed grows—including a recent 1,100-plant haul—and there was one marijuana-connected homicide in late 2015, there have been no major cases involving organized crime.

While most complaints center on crime, others suggest a deeper, cultural rift.

“Our family moved to this county to get away from these anti-social, drug-driven groups of folk in the Bay Area,” reads an entry under the website’s testimonials section. “And now, here they are.”

One can read the comment as relating to more than just cannabis, and many have. The San Francisco Bay Area—with its booming tech economy and thriving, well-regulated cannabis industry—is racially and culturally diverse. Calaveras, meanwhile, is more than 90% white.

But even the CCA and other industry members concede that the prohibitionists have a point: Cannabis growers can be annoying. And, quite possibly, a quarter-acre cannabis farm on a two-acre plot might be too much weed. Too much, too soon, too close to residences—and all of it far too fast.

“Even in our neighborhood, there’s constant dog-barking, generators running 24 hours a day,” Bloom Farm’s Mike Ray told me. “I think a lot of it stems from an influx of—what’s the word?—an influx of newcomers, many of whom are bad actors.”

“And all of that,” he said, echoing the argument growers make at each and every county supervisors meeting, “is caused by non-regulation.”

Logistically, banning marijuana seems virtually impossible. It would require resources the county simply does not have. On top of that, if the marijuana taxes go away, the budget deficit grows by millions overnight. If police are laid off and inspectors aren’t hired, who, exactly, will shut down the bad growers? And if the marijuana industry is denied a place in Calaveras County, what do local leaders plan to put in its place to balance the budget and create jobs?

“I have asked that question, and nobody has provided me with an answer,” Supervisor Garamendi said. “Everyone is willing to say what they don’t want. No one is willing to say what they do want.”

“The majority of the board continues to move forward with a plan that, in many ways, is driving off a fiscal cliff,” he continued. “They’re hoping we sprout wings before we crash. That’s a big hope.”

Ray of Bloom Farms agreed. “If they ban it, and push it underground, they will spend the next five years arresting people and spending millions of dollars for nothing,” he said.

“They’re stuck in their old ways,” he added. “They’re comfortable without it. But they don’t see the big picture.”

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Chris Roberts
Chris Roberts
Based in New York City, Chris Roberts has been writing about cannabis since spending a few months in Humboldt County in 2009. His work has been published in SF Weekly, Cannabis Now, The Guardian, High Times, and San Francisco Magazine, among others.
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