Can The Sheriff Protect Pot Growers From Vigilantes?

Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman told more than 100 people in Laytonville Sunday, Aug. 31, that he would come to the aid of medical cannabis growers if helicopter vigilantes raided them.

“The answer is ‘yes,’” Allman said near the end of his talk, when pressed for an answer by a concerned audience member. “I want to see with my own eyes what’s happening.”

LEAR Team [photo by Steve Eberhard, The Willits News]
LEAR Team [photo by Steve Eberhard, The Willits News]
The sheriff wasted no time denying rumors that his department hired helicopters and agents from LEAR Asset Management, a private security company in Mendocino County, to conduct raids on cannabis gardens in the Woodman Creek area of Laytonville July 23 and 24.

“I want to clearly say the Sheriff’s Office has never hired LEAR Asset Management to eradicate marijuana and to go on people’s land, “ Allman said. “If a private security company has gone onto a landowner’s property without the landowner’s permission and eradicated marijuana, they have broken the law.”

Despite the sheriff’s assurances, he offered no new facts about the incidents that occurred in Woodman Creek. Nor did he appear to quell fears that unidentified operatives are terrorizing growers, including many who are in compliance with Mendocino’s 9.31 medical marijuana regulations.

Sheriff Allman
Sheriff Allman

The county’s top cop spoke at Harwood Hall, at the final meeting of the Cannabis Renaissance Series, a project of the Long Valley Garden Club.

“If you are a person with firsthand knowledge, I want to talk to you,” Allman said, promising the audience that if he had hard facts and reliable first-hand information about unauthorized raids, he would launch an investigation.

“The penal code says you as a citizen have the absolute right to ask any law enforcement officer what their name is and what their badge number is,” Allman said. “You have that right.”

But gathering facts during authorized busts or vigilante raids can be challenging, according to audience members, particularly if guns are drawn, telephones and cameras are confiscated or hands are tied.

At Woodman Creek, eradicators reportedly did not identify themselves or wear badges.

Hezekiah Allen, a medical cannabis lobbyist and the new executive director of the Emerald Growers Association, moderated the discussion, asking Allman questions solicited from the audience in writing before the sheriff spoke. Some audience members said after the event that requiring questions be submitted in writing limited real dialogue with the sheriff. Others argued that written questions protected the privacy of the questioners.

The sheriff stated that the only first-hand report he’s had of LEAR activities in Mendocino County came from a timber company in Ft. Bragg that hired LEAR Asset Management to eradicate marijuana and deal with trespassers on company property. That, he said, is perfectly legal.

A LEAR executive, who was spotted at Sunday’s meeting, has denied any connection with raids in Woodman Creek, Dos Rios and Spyrock.

Allman outlined his department’s five enforcement objectives for cannabis cultivation, stating that his deputies need only show their investigation meets one of the objectives to get his okay. Deputies may eradicate:

• commercial grows that raise and sell cannabis for profit, which is a felony;

• trespass grows on someone else’s land without their permission;

• gardens on public lands;

• grows that degrade the environment, and

• grows that divert water illegally.

The audience responded with applause when Allman told the audience that the Number One problem with marijuana law is “consistency.”

“What’s legal in Mendocino County could be a felony in Los Angeles,” the sheriff said. “That’s not fair for you. I joke that in each county we need to have billboards saying, ‘Welcome to our county. These are our marijuana laws.’ Other laws, theft, domestic violence, are black and white, same in L.A. as here. But with marijuana, it’s not consistent.”

As the program wrapped up, Allman answered several emotional questions directly from audience members.

Butch Small, a Potter Valley man, told the sheriff that he was detained on August 5 by men who dropped from helicopters near his home. After seeing the men hovering above a friend’s property, Small drove to her land check on her well-being. She was not there, but two men “popped out of the bushes,” pointed two 40-caliber pistols in his face and refused to give him their names or IDs, pointing only to the word “police” printed on their thermal underwear. They threatened to raid his garden if he did not give them his name and identification.

Another audience member, who declined to use her name for fear of reprisals, told the sheriff that law enforcement officials, not just vigilantes, were “terrorizing” families in Mendocino County.

“I am here to represent the women and children and grandmothers that have come to me in tears, “ she said, “Broken from being arrested and terrorized by having their children threatened and guns pointed at their children and taken away by CPS.

“There is trauma here, Sheriff,” sobbed the woman. “We are in deep trouble. We need you to protect us. How do you get to a phone when you’re being raided? Do your deputies know the difference between a medical grow and a commercial grow? Can you protect us? Can you do that for us? We are being terrorized. There is a fear of retaliation and of speaking out. “

Allman said the county raid of which the woman spoke was on a grow of 50 plants, which is above the 25-plants-per-parcel limit. “I’m not going to sit here and promise you that things won’t go wrong,” Allman said. “Please, just have 25 plants.”

The sheriff won applause for saying he wished he had as much time to spend on methamphetamine enforcement as the federal and state governments want him to spend on marijuana.

Asked by moderator Allen if the audience appreciated the opportunity to talk with the sheriff, many clapped in agreement.

But afterwards, reaction to the event was more muted.

One of the meeting organizers, who declined to be named out of fear of retaliation, told a reporter that she had taken an “unofficial exit poll” of people leaving the building. What most felt, she said, was that Allman’s presentation was “the same old B.S., the same old slick political talk.”

“He didn’t really answer our questions,” the woman said. “We still don’t know any more about who those guys dropping down from the helicopters are and why they are terrorizing Mendocino County.”

Pebbles Trippet, a longtime pro-cannabis activist and member of the Mendocino Medical Marijuana Advisory Board, called Allman’s words “jive,” despite the fact, she said, that she had worked to get him elected. She had many concerns that reached far beyond the sheriff, including what she termed Mendocino County residents’ loss of constitutional rights. Trippet said those rights are being violated because the county can enforce its 25-plant limit under civil nuisance abatement procedures.

“It’s a civil administrative code not a criminal code,” Trippet said. “They don’t have to knock on your door or give you a warrant. You don’t have the right to a jury trial or the presumption of innocence. It’s unconstitutional.”

A first step toward fair and more consistent cannabis drug laws, Trippet said, would be to take marijuana off the federal Schedule 1 Narcotics list.

“Obama should let the Congress decide, and they’d have to hold public hearings,” Trippet said. “That would do it.”

Third District Supervisorial candidate and Willits Councilmember Holly Madrigal said Allman’s talk underscored how much more fact-finding needs to be done.

“I’m here because I’ve been hearing a lot locally about infringement on civil rights of the citizens of Mendocino County,” Madrigal said. “I was interested in hearing what the Sheriff had to say about recent activity. There’s more work to do. We need to find out what’s really going on.”

(Jane Futcher is a freelance writer who lives near Laytonville.)

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