Update Friday, 4:20 p.m. Click here for an interview with Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman.
Update Friday, 1:10 p.m. Northstone Organics owner Matthew Cohen spoke to the Ukiah Daily Journal:
"They came in, guns blazing," Cohen said of the Thursday morning raid. "They calmed down and were pleasant at the end, but they came in with machine guns."
The agents arrived at 6 a.m., handcuffed Cohen and his wife and stayed until about 2 p.m., taking 99 marijuana plants, computers and testing equipment, according to Cohen. He said the agents threatened to file federal charges against him, but made no arrests during the raid...
Cohen was operating within Mendocino County's licensing program for medical marijuana growers. As KQED's Michael Montgomery reported for The California Report in July, Mendocino County is the "only place in California with an ordinance that makes it legal to be a cannabis farmer." Montgomery even tagged along on a sheriff department's visit to Cohen's farm:
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...
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...
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...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... (He) 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."
Indeed. Last Friday, at a joint press conference of the four U.S. Attorneys for California, Melinda Haag, the U.S. Attorney for Northern California, said the following:
"Another challenge in the Northern District of California and around the state is the phenomena of cities and counties assisting in the proliferation of marijuana shops and grow operations by licensing and ostensibly authorizing the commercial and very profitable cultivation and distribution of marijuana. In our view these licensing schemes are inconsistent with federal law."