It’s still early in the year, the nights are cold, and outdoor pot farmers are just beginning to think about germinating seeds and planting starts. Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman is already ahead of the game. He’s thinking about raids on pot plantations, which could begin as early as April, he says,and he’s also already setting plans in motion for his innovative program for Mendocino County residents to grow medical marijuana legally. He’s signing up new clients; applications are online. The fees that he collects from the legal medical marijuana growers will help to fund raids against the outlaw pot farmers, and, though he’s been criticized for his audacious plan, Allman is sticking to it. In a time of budget cuts, it’s perhaps the only way to pay his deputies.
I understand his plight and I empathize. I’ve been going to Mendocino since the 1970s and I’ve been writing about Mendocino marijuana and Mendocino sheriffs for 30 years. When I first ventured into the wilds of Mendocino there were no medical marijuana growers – though there was tons of marijuana — no medical marijuana defense in court, no pot dispensaries, no doctors who recommended it to their patients, except for the odd hippie MD.
In 30 years a sea change has taken place, and, though in November 2010 California voters rejected Prop 19 — which would have legalized small amounts of recreational and not medicinal marijuana — that defeat at the polls hasn’t stopped Tom Allman or the Mendocino marijuana growers.
Moreover, as marijuana becomes increasingly legal in California, Sheriff Allman will lend a big helping hand. To legalize a contraband substance one doesn’t turn to outlaws, but to lawmen, as Allman himself recognizes. He’d be happy, he says, to make all-out war on the Meth manufacturers in Mendocino, and leave legal medical marijuana growers alone.
In Mendocino, almost everyone over the age of six knows the name Tom Allman; outlaws and law-abiding citizens have met him and talked shop. But not many growers and foes of growers know the real Allman. It’s not that he’s elusive and secretive, but he’s on the go to Washington DC and to Sacramento, meeting with Drug Czar, Gil Kerlikowske, and with the sheriffs of the other 57 counties in California trying to get all of them to adopt the same marijuana laws. He doesn’t like the helter-skelter rules and regulations. “Maybe all of us adopting the same laws is a pipe dream,” he says. “But it’s worth trying.”
When he looks back at his years in Mendocino, he sees big changes. In the beginning, he arrested growers for two plants. “Today, that would be very unlikely,” he told me on a Friday morning when he reflected on issues, politics, and politicians such as California’s new Attorney General, Kamala Harris, whom, he said, he was eager to meet and talk about pot — his favorite subject.
The morning of our meeting, Allman wore civilian clothes. On the wall there was a still from his favorite picture, The Untouchables, with Sean Connery as the cop on the beat, and Kevin Kostner as Eliot Ness. The same still has been there forever, and it says a lot about Allman that he identifies with the cop Connery plays on screen, and that he’s never wanted to be an Eliot Ness gangbuster.
Allman says that he wants “the marijuana laws to be in black and white, with no gray area,” but he’s not an all-black or an all-white kind of sheriff. Yes, he’s absolutely intolerant of big commercial marijuana growers who seize and squat on public land, steal water, and trash the environment. At the same time, he’s increasingly tolerant of growers who are compassionate and who cultivate pot to help medical marijuana patients. “I recently walked a 99-plant garden with a marijuana farmer,” he told me. “I didn’t arrest him, and our meeting ended with a handshake.” He believes in the efficacy of medical marijuana, and he knows that it works for Crone’s disease, arthritis, backache, neck-ache, and more. Moreover, he’s an advocate of tinctures because he believes that smoking anything, whether it’s pot or tobacco, is bad for the lungs.
Allman has been in the cop business for 28 years, about half of those years before Proposition 215 passed, and about half after 215. He was also a Civilian Peace Keeper for the US State Department in Kosovo and saw mass graves, hand grenades, and the damage from bombs. That experience changed his life; it gave him a sense of proportion and gave meaning to his existence, too.
In Mendocino, of course, it’s not possible to be a cop and not know as much about pot as pot growers. It’s everywhere one goes and Allman goes almost everywhere in the county. Recently, he was invited to attend a gala marijuana harvest party in Laytonville but declined. Sometimes he shows up at parties where guests are smoking pot and, as he says, “I find a reason to leave.”
It’s from the air that he discovers what’s really going on behind fences and locked gates. “In 2010, I flew all over Laytonville,” he told me. “I see who has pot. I know Republicans who would love to vote for Nixon if he was running now and who are growing. It’s not the marijuana world it was when I started.”
Allman expects there to be as many changes in the next decade as there have been in the last three. He hopes that legal medical marijuana will become the norm, and he wants Mendocino to show the way to the rest of the state.
“My role is not to legalize medical marijuana,” he said. “But to link people who want to talk about it. More and more, people want to talk. It used to be they whispered when pot was the subject. Then, they began to speak in a normal tone of voice. In the last few years, they’ve been shouting. I think history will judge us favorably and that future historians will say that opting for legal medical marijuana was the right road to take.”