Nearly 500 suspected cannabis growers in Humboldt County have received letters from local officials urging them to cease cultivation activities and warning of future enforcement if they fail to comply. The letters from the Commercial Cannabis Cultivation unit of Humboldt County Code Enforcement were sent last week to approximately 470 residents suspected of operating un-permitted marijuana growing operations.

“You are receiving this letter as a courtesy to inform you of what appears to have been an un-permitted commercial cannabis cultivation operation on your parcel,” the letter reads. “A county land use permit and a state license are both required to legally cultivate cannabis in Humboldt County, and our records indicate that neither exist for this property. While the overall cultivation area appears to be relatively small, it still requires an appropriate permit.”

Humboldt County Planning Director John Ford, who oversees the unit, said that the letters were sent out as a courtesy after residents requested at community meetings that the county warn suspected un-permitted cultivation operations before issuing abatement notices. The initiation of abatement proceedings can result in fines of up to thousands of dollars per day for violators.

The letters encouraged the recipients to immediately cease cannabis cultivation, remove any un-permitted structures, and obtain after-the-fact permits for any grading that has been performed at the grow sites. Those who wish to cultivate cannabis commercially were urged to obtain the necessary licenses before resuming operations. 

The letter also advised that cannabis farms in operation prior to December 31, 2015 may qualify for a “pre-existing” cultivation permit that will allow them to continue operating while the county makes an environmental review of the new industry. Farmers were advised to apply for the program before the end of the year. Permits will not be issued to new operations or to existing operations that miss the deadline while the environmental review is conducted, which could take years.

The planning director asked that any residents who may have received a warning letter but aren’t growing cannabis to report the error.

“If it isn’t [marijuana cultivation,] contact us and tell us that,” Ford said. “If it is, the county expects it to stop or [for the farmer to] get a permit and become legal.”

Small Growers Shut Out of Legalization

An unnamed cannabis industry consultant told the North Coast Journal that the “the bar was set way too high” for small cultivators with operations of fewer than 100 plants, noting that Sheriff Mike Downey once estimated that Humboldt County was home 12,000 cultivation sites.

“At this point, I don’t think we will have more than a thousand legal farms in all of Humboldt County,” the consultant said.

“They now realize they left the small farmers out of the picture,” said another consultant. “Now I think they are trying to salvage them. But it may be too little too late as [the un-permitted farmers] look to their neighbors and hear nothing good about becoming legal. If people were able to become legal and have a good experience doing it, then the neighbors would be more willing to enter the permit process. As it is, people … tell their friends, ‘Don’t even try it.’”

The loss of independent cannabis growers unable to compete in a regulated market threatens the economy of Humboldt County. One farmer who received a warning letter for his un-permitted 30-plant operation said the county’s way of life is also at stake. Without the income from his grow, he may be forced to leave the area. That would take his children out of their school of only eight students.

“When they leave, that school may close and the remaining kids may get bused out each day,” he said.

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