SAN JOSE — The rugged, mountainous terrain of unincorporated Santa Clara County has long hidden clandestine cannabis fields, and officials this week made it clear that despite the passage of Proposition 64, they’re still illegal.
County supervisors have approved a 45-day moratorium on marijuana growing operations that can be extended for two years while they consider next steps in what officials called a changing landscape, as the state drafts its own regulations on recreational pot cultivation.
“Outdoor grows were illegal before the moratorium and they’re illegal after the moratorium,” said Sylvia Gallegos, deputy county executive.
But because beginning in January the state will issue permits for commercial outdoor cultivation, Gallegos said is was important to reaffirm that the county does not allow such operations in the unincorporated areas. Medical marijuana rules remain in place that allow limited indoor and outdoor grows, and under Prop 64 residents can grow up to six plants indoors for nonmedical purposes.
The moratorium also prohibits cannabis businesses from opening in unincorporated areas. But the conversation at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting made it clear that the main concern wasn’t pot shops, but rather the destructive and dangerous cultivation operations that pop up in the Santa Cruz Mountains and Diablo Range that border Silicon Valley.
“The environmental damage we’ve seen is very disturbing,” Gallegos said. “Diversion of streams, illegal grading that destabilizes slopes — there’s clear-cutting and toxic contamination of streams and soils.”
Sheriff’s Capt. Dalia Rodriguez said they have three officers working on eradicating illegal fields — a daunting task considering the 956 square miles of unincorporated areas. She said in 2016, 98,354 marijuana plants were seized, discovered through tips and aerial surveillance. But “it’s hard to put into words how many gardens are out there — there’s no way to quantify it.”
They received 55 tips last year that resulted in 11 eradications. Six in the area of Croy Road and Loma Chiquita Road — where according to Cal Fire officials, a portable generator at a marijuana grow sparked the Loma Fire that destroyed 12 homes and burned thousands of acres in the Santa Cruz Mountains last September.
“The areas you describe are in my district,” said Supervisor Mike Wasserman. “My concern is that we don’t have enough resources that we are currently allocating to the issue. … My concerns are fire. The pesticides. Water. Wildlife. People living in fear.”
Wasserman said he is inclined toward giving the sheriff’s office more resources to better combat what he called “unsafe environmental and human conditions,” and the board asked for a report on what would be needed for expanded operations on Oct. 17, when the moratorium will return for discussion.
One speaker at Tuesday’s meeting, who identified himself as Chris M., said the existing prohibition on marijuana grows is what resulted in the hazardous black market operations.
“Growers want to comply,” he said. “They want to pay their taxes, they want to have their product tested for pesticide use, they want to have proper water use and run off. If you continue this moratorium you will be exacerbating the situation.”
Supervisor Ken Yeager suggested that legal grows might help authorities focus limited resources on illicit, damaging operations.
But Gallegos said there are indicators from other jurisdictions that wouldn’t be the case. She said that statewide, there are 50,000 illegal operations and about a third are expected to transition to the legal marketplace. And Monterey County officials have said there’s been an uptick in illegal fields since they permitted some cultivation.
“The concern is that even by signalling to the community that we may entertain commercial regulations,” she said, “it will spur illegal grows.”