It's well known that some people who grow pot do so under the cover of state medical-marijuana laws, then sell it on the black market for bigger profits. In response, Mendocino County has started a novel program intended to license and monitor medical marijuana producers. But this attempt to regulate pot producers has put the county at odds with the feds. Reporter: Michael Montgomery
Since California legalized medical marijuana 15 years ago, pot production has exploded -- and not just in the legal market. It's well known that some people who grow pot do so under the cover of state medical-marijuana laws, then sell it on the black market for bigger profits. In response, Mendocino County has started a novel program intended to license and monitor medical marijuana producers. But this attempt to regulate pot producers has put the county at odds with the feds.
At an organic farm set in the sun-baked hills north of Ukiah, Mendocino sheriff Lieutenant Randy Johnson is having a most unusual meeting with the farm's owner, Matt Cohen.
"Has anything changed since I was here last?" Johnson asks.
"We've cut down some plants, which are drying." Cohen says.
The two men walk toward rows of bushy, bright green marijuana plants bulging out of a fenced compound at the back of Cohen's farm. Just a couple years ago, Johnson most likely would have been cutting down these plants and hauling them away as evidence. But today he's here to inspect them.
Each plant on Cohen's farm has a red tag, stamped with a unique number that's registered with the sheriff's department. Under a county ordinance, Cohen can have up to 99 of these plants, and each can yield up to 15 pounds of dry bud. He delivers the processed marijuana to customers in the Bay Area who have a doctor's recommendation as required by state law. The program costs pot farmers like Cohen up to $10,000 a year, and they must submit to monthly inspections by deputies like Johnson.
"It's a whole new world for us, and a whole new world for the farmers," says Johnson. "Literally one of the farmers told me, 'You know I just want to be relaxed about it. Do it legal. And be able to purchase property and not have to worry about getting it taken away.'"
Cohen says the program allows marijuana growers to work and live more openly.
"You meet somebody at the coffee shop and they say what do you do? Hey, I'm a cannabis farmer. It's a big difference."
Mendocino is the only place in California with an ordinance that makes it legal to be a cannabis farmer. And the program is attracting attention -- not all of it flattering.
"We're not a bunch of Cheech and Chong law enforcement officers that are encouraging people to grow marijuana. Nothing could be further from the truth," says Mendocino Sheriff Tom Allman.
Allman says county supervisors started the program out of frustration with the state's medical-marijuana law, which doesn't spell out how the industry should be regulated. So Allman says it's been hard for everyone, from growers to law enforcement, to know what's legal and what isn't.
"If I could put a subtitle on what we are doing, we are trying to remove the grey area," says Allman. "And if we can remove the inconsistencies, if we can have people not confused about the marijuana laws then I have succeeded."
Allman says the fees collected from legal growers help pay the department to hunt down illegal ones. But Tommy LaNier of the National Marijuana Initiative doesn't see a distinction.
"All marijuana is illegal. There's no question about it," says LaNier. "Tom's got a tough problem, but in my point of view it's illegal." LaNier helps coordinate enforcement actions under the White House Office of Drug Control Policy. He insists that neither California's marijuana law, nor the Mendocino licensing program, are allowed under the federal Controlled Substances Act.
"You need to be extremely careful when you enact laws that are in violation of the federal statues, because it won't fly," says LaNier.
But Mendocino supervisor John McCowen says the county is simply filling in the gaps in the state's law.
"The intention behind our ordinance was to control and regulate the industry. It wasn't to profit by being able to charge a tax on the growers. "
Back at his farm, Matt Cohen is busy expanding. His non-profit now has 15 employees, and he's founded of a county-wide trade group, called Mendogrown.
"I want to see Mendocino County be the Napa of cannabis after prohibition. I want all the good people in this community that are doing, what they're doing. I want them to be doing it legally and still have a job," says Cohen.
And as Mendocino's licensing program enters a second season, growers are flocking to public meetings.
"I think a lot of growers are really hungry for legitimacy. [I think] a lot of the growers feel righteous about what they're doing. And now they're starting to get a little recognition from the government," says Supervisor McCowen.
Yet many growers are still suspicious of the program. It's also facing problems in neighboring counties where police have arrested licensed Mendocino growers transporting marijuana through their territory. And Tommy LaNier says a federal crackdown could be coming. The Justice Department recently warned that local governments -- and officials -- who run permit programs like Mendocino's could face federal prosecution, regardless of state law.
"Those entities, whether it be a city or county that facilitates in the allowance of that through some type of mechanism, whether it's a permit program or something like that, could be a target ? they could be a target," he says.
But John McCowen says the county will stand up to pressure from the feds to shut down the licensing program.
"I would like to have an explanation from the feds of what would they prefer to have us do? Do they want us to go back to the total chaos that characterized the industry three years ago? Do they think that was better for the community and public safety?"
As of last week, more than 70 people have received stamps of approval to grow medical marijuana, legally, at least in the eyes of Mendocino County.
[This story was produced in collaboration with the Center for Investigative Reporting.]