Brian Elliott’s small, tidy Santa Rosa office is filled with mementos of his long life in public service. Perhaps most striking is the large fire chief’s helmet that he wore for decades. Indeed, no one alive in Sonoma County has put out more fires than Elliott, though these days he wears another kind of hat. He also does his best to extinguish with savvy and cool some of the political fires that have swept across urban and rural landscapes here. At 64, Elliott is a fierce albeit polite advocate for the local, billion-dollar a year cottage cannabis industry that the County of Sonoma aims to limit with dozens of new rules, regulations, fees and taxes, as well as the threat of fines and foreclosures on property if and when outlaws don’t “jump through the hoops,” as he calls them.
Fighting for cottage cannabis is probably his last stand. It is also perhaps a lost cause, though that notion only makes him more highly motivated to fight what he sees as the good fight. “The cost for someone to come into the marijuana business now is ridiculous high,” he said. He added, “The original idea was to bring growers from the unregulated to the regulated market. But with all the burdens involved in that transition people will likely choose to stay unregulated. I think that this county has probably missed the boat when it comes to bringing marijuana into the legal fold.”
Not long ago, growers here were euphoric. Indeed, Elliott himself remembers what he describes as the “Kumbaya atmosphere” when pot farmers, pot smokers and marijuana aficionados thought that happy days had finally arrived and that the promised post-prohibition land was just around the corner. In fact, last November, voters here and all across California approved proposition 64 that allowed for legal, recreational cannabis in addition to medical marijuana made possible by Proposition 215 that was approved in 1996.
Then, much to Elliott’s distress and the ire of pot farmers, smokers and aficionados, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisor ruled that no residents who lived on property zoned “Rural Residential” (RR) and “Agricultural Residential” (AR) could grow commercial marijuana crops. Marijuana, the supervisors concluded, wasn’t compatible with the rural life style of Sonoma. The only trouble was that nearly half of the estimated more than 3,500 or so marijuana farmers in Sonoma County had been growing the crop of their choice for decades on land zoned AR and RR. Curiously, the supervisors seemed to feel that in order to save the county they had to literally uproot the cottage marijuana industry and thereby end a way of rural life in Sonoma. Their ruling send growers reeling.
Enter Brian Elliott, perhaps as unlikely an advocate for marijuana as anyone in town. Unlikely not only because he was a fire fighter for 45 years, but also because his pioneering family has roots in rural Sonoma County that go back to the 1880s. Some of his relatives, he says, use medical marijuana for a variety of ailments— and it works wonders. He also says that he doesn’t consume cannabis in any way shape or form. Nor does he touch a drop of alcohol. (He’s a recovering alcoholic.)
Elliot has all the credential for a good citizen. “My hand has been in almost everything in this county,” he explained. For years, he taught at the Santa Rosa Junior College (SRJC), and also worked as a carpenter and a commercial fisherman. These days he serves on the supervisory board of the Redwood Credit Union; he’d like it if banks would accept marijuana dollars and keep money out of the reach of thieves who stage home robberies. “Violence in the industry has been exaggerated,” he said. “It would largely vanish if banking was an option for growers.” Indeed, while there have been murders in marijuana related incidents, and while they have made headlines, they are the exception, not the rule.
Elliott represents 22 dogged, non-violent clients in the marijuana industry who are solvent enough to pay the county’s steep fees, and who can probably meet all or most of the stringent regulations that stipulate where, when and how they can grow their crops. They can also afford to pay Elliott $1,500 a month for his services. (He also offers an hourly rate.) He turns away many prospective clients because they live in areas not zoned for marijuana, or because they don’t have the wherewithal to make their properties compliant with regulations.
Perhaps what’s most striking are not his fees, which are reasonable enough, given his expertise, but the fact that he’s one of a dozen or so men who have recently become experts on cannabis, and who aim to take their clients as painlessly as possible through the hurdles created by county officials, plus near-constant surveillance and inspections by agencies like the Permit and Resource Management Department (PRMD) as well as water and fire. Elliott won’t and can’t reveal the names or the identities of his 22 clients. He signed non-disclosure agreements with them.
“I won’t name names,” he said. “But I feel that I can speak freely because I’m near the end of my life in public service.” He added, “I have a sense of compassion for the growers who aren’t in the pipe line for a permit. They might not ever get one. Unfortunately, the county doesn’t allow for case-by-case review. There are no variances in this business, though there are in other agricultural endeavors. I find that hypocritical. I would like Sonoma to be a lot more flexible when it comes to marijuana. I’m afraid it won’t be.”
The County of Sonoma won’t be issuing many permits this July when the whole permitting process begins. Only eleven people will be approved. Those eleven people will also have to apply to Sacramento for a permit to grow which means more fees, more rules and regulations.
The county’s slowness and its perceived inflexibility have led growers in the marijuana cottage industry here not to give up, but rather to go deeper underground and to be more secretive about their dealings on the black market. One woman who has cultivated cannabis since 1995 and who calls herself Pippi Longstocking has never had a permit. She doesn’t intend to get one now. “I like the grower life style,” she said. “It’s part bohemian, part outlaw and it’s outside the box.” She added, “Marijuana is the symbol of our culture.” Other outlaw growers are moving to places like Mendocino and Santa Cruz where regulations aren’t as stringent and where they feel they can operate under the radar. Some are also moving to the city of Santa Rosa, which has a lower tax rate for marijuana than the county and is friendlier to the crop.
That picture is clear from interviews with two dozen growers who attended the workshops that the county held in Santa Rosa in May and that were meant to inform citizens about the new, all-encompassing rules and regulations. Hundreds of growers packed the Glaser Center in Santa Rosa, took copious notes, grumbled among themselves and wondered where they might find the necessary cash. Dozens of women growers and dealers attended the workshops; not many Mexicans did, though they too grow weed. Nearly every ethnic group does.
The presenters clearly sensed the discomfort in the auditorium. Andrew Smith from Weights and Measures told listeners “Seems like there are fees, fees, fees, everywhere.” He added, “We will go through every application with a fine tooth and comb”— a comment that calmed no one.
Another county employee told the crowd, “A lot of this stuff we ourselves haven’t figured out.” Paul Cocking, an Investment and Debt officer for the county, must have read the collective mind of the assembled growers. “Don’t think of us as an evil government entity,” he said. “We want to help you.”
But to growers the help felt like an order from Big Brother. During the third of four workshops, Andrew Smith rattled off at least a dozen rules for pot farmers, including adoption of best management practices, proper job training for all employees, no cultivation on steep slopes, composting in accordance with California regulations, regular testing of water and soil and timely submission of use permits. It’s not that many if not all the regulations are bad or a waste of time. But to expect growers to meet the standards by the end of 2017 is not only unreasonable, it also smacks of strong-arm tactics. Even a vineyard with unlimited capital would have difficulty meeting the game plan proposed by the county for cannabis.
Tariq Alazarie—the CEO of a San Francisco pot dispensary that also owns a commercial marijuana farm in Santa Rosa—might be expected to see evil in the county bureaucracy. Instead, he sees a kind of intransigence. “I understand,” he says. “The people who make the rules today have the same mindset as the people who made the rules 150 years ago. It’s their territory. They don’t want it to change and they’re not going to change.”
Indeed, the Board of Supervisors has made it clear that it wants Sonoma to remain “Wine Country” and not become “Wine & Marijuana Country.” Still, not all the supervisors think alike. Lynda Hopkins, who represents the Fifth District and who owns and operates with her husband a small business and a small vegetable farm, would like to nurture the cottage marijuana industry.
“Cannabis is a significant driver of the economy in my district,” she said. “In the coastal hills people have been growing for a generation or more. It’s the family business. I have visited grow sites and processing facilities and toured some dispensaries. I’ve been impressed with the integrity of the operations. People are environmentally conscious.”
On the Board of Supervisors, Hopkins is in the minority, though she has Brian Elliott’s loyalty and support. “I’m so glad she’s there,” he said. He added, “The fledgling marijuana industry needs to be protected. Not that long ago growers went to federal prison for cultivating a botanical product. Today, we have an opioid epidemic and yet people demonize marijuana. It doesn’t make sense.”
Elliott and his fellow pot lobbyists have their eyes on the Trump administration. “We all talk about Attorney General Jeff Sessions,” he explained. “Prop 64 and recreational marijuana are definitely in jeopardy. We could see a big rollback.” That’s yet another reason why Sonoma marijuana farmers are staying underground and invisible and not coming forward to apply for permits. They’ve learned the hard way not to trust law enforcement.
(Jonah Raskin is the author of “Marijuanaland.” He wrote the story for the feature film “Homegrown.”)