Trinity County supervisors last week voted to increase county fines for illegal cannabis cultivation from a current $100 per day to a minimum of $1,000 per day that a violation continues to exist without abatement.
The change was introduced as an amendment to the county’s ordinance on violations and infractions at the Board of Supervisors’ Aug. 18 meeting. Following a 4-0 vote with one member absent, the proposed amendment will come back at the board’s next meeting (Sept. 1) for final adoption.
The fine for all other building code violations not related to cannabis will remain at $100 per day. Increasing the cannabis fines to $1,000 was the recommendation of the Sheriff’s Office, District Attorney, County Administrative Office and Planning Department.
Planning Director Kim Hunter said that despite the availability of a legal pathway for cannabis activities in the county, illegal cannabis sites persist. The intent of increasing the fine is to aggressively promote and ensure compliance with Trinity County regulations while discouraging illegal activity that poses unwanted competition for legal cannabis operators, she said.
Sup. Judy Morris clarified that the fine is $100 per violation and there could be several on any given site including not only illegal cultivation, but also unpermitted structures, costing the offender $500 or $600 a day.
“I understand the importance of raising these fines, but we have these likely unlicensed operations going on at night, under tarps, popping up all over. I can see them at night. So how do we take these fines where they need to go and not just take the path of least resistance, hammering the nearby neighbor growing outside for personal use when we aren’t looking at the big ones popping up out there,” Morris said.
County Counsel Margaret Long reported that 260 sites were issued notices of violations last year averaging two to six different violations per site. She added the mid- to large-sized grows are the focus of code enforcement officers, and very large grow sites are referred to the District Attorney’s office.
“We’re seeing a lot more self-abatement than we’ve seen in the past and that is the goal. A drastic increase in self-abatement is a good thing for the county, rather than going through the abatement process,” Long said.
“We interact with code enforcement regularly. They are definitely prioritizing environmental crimes and flagrant violations, not the small ones,” Hunter said.
Several public comments were offered on the proposed increase, primarily in support, but also some opposed.
“Inflict some pain on the illegal growers and use the revenue for enforcement,” said one. Others argued that illegal operators consider $100 a day to be pocket change and just a minor part of their cost of doing business. One said $1,000 per day is still too low, arguing it should be $5,000, and that abatement in many cases just means harvesting the plants for sale before planting another crop.
“The current fines don’t seem to be dissuading anybody. There’s got to be a consequence so people think twice before breaking the law,” said another.
On the other side, cannabis advocates in the room argued there hasn’t been sufficient public process to increase the fines and that the proposed amendment doesn’t address backyard growers allowed to cultivate six plants each for up to five medical patients under the county’s existing personal grow ordinance.
They also noted there is currently no path forward for growers seeking to become licensed in the county because there is a waiting list and new applications are not being processed.
“They aren’t hitting the big people. There’s grandmas in Junction City that got hit for 20 plants last year growing as caregivers. This is really a disruptive twist in the process right now. Eliminate any fines for 30 plants or less for medical use and this should not kick in until there is a path forward on licensing,” said John Brower of Junction City.
Sup. Judy Morris said she would like to see more data on the county’s code enforcement efforts “because if we don’t have the people, this won’t get off the ground no matter how much we throw at it. How can we address both sides of the issue? And we need more in-depth analysis on the medical caregivers so they don’t get wrapped up in this.”
“Those are all interesting things that are not relative to this discussion today,” said Sup. Keith Groves who argued if there are problems in the systems “we need to look at those, but to say we need to fix those before we do this is a smokescreen. The amount we are charging in fines is ridiculously low and we’ve known that for years.”
Sheriff Tim Saxon clarified the code enforcement staffing issues, saying four officers were allocated in the past year’s budget, and three positions were filled before one was released due to an off-duty injury. He is optimistic this year will see four code enforcement officers on duty, allowing them to patrol at night as well as day.
Regarding the allegation his department has targeted 20-plant grows, he said, “We have not been doing that. We go after the primary complaints we receive in communities and we just had a lot of those come through that we are working to address as quickly as possible. We respond to complaints, not just plant counts, but those that are endangering communities and the way of life in those communities.”
Planning Director Hunter commented that the board heard from licensed growers opposed to the fine increase, “but there’s also been a lot of support for this from legal growers asking for this to be on the agenda. There is support even if not at the mic. And there is urgency in this. Right now, it is cheaper to illegally cultivate and get fined, cited, abate and replant than to try to go through our licensing program. We have not accepted new licensing applications since March 15, but we are processing what we have. It is my recommendation that these fines need to be increased.”
Board Chair Bobbi Chadwick was absent from the meeting last week, and the vote to introduce the proposed ordinance amendment increasing cannabis fines was 4-0.