Mendocino County is fighting efforts by federal prosecutors to get records on medical marijuana growers who signed up for a program intended to sanction their businesses under state law.
The county's resistance creates a rare legal clash between local and federal authorities over conflicting marijuana laws. The U.S. Justice Department has been targeting growers and purveyors of medical cannabis, and threatening local or state officials who try to regulate the trade, saying all marijuana use is illegal under federal law.
Last March, Mendocino County officials bowed to such threats and stopped issuing permits to grow up to 99 plants. Now county attorneys are urging a federal judge in San Francisco to quash a federal subpoena issued in October demanding a wide range of information about the cultivation program, including applications of growers seeking permits.
Two marijuana advocacy groups seeking clearer laws in California filed briefs arguing that compliance with the subpoena would reveal confidential medical information and bank records and "undermine the county's considered and thoughtful attempts to regulate marijuana pursuant to state law."
"The message this sends to people across the state trying to comply in good faith with medical marijuana regulations is that they should operate below ground," said Adam Wolf, a San Francisco attorney representing the two groups, the Emerald Growers Assn. and Americans for Safe Access. "That's the last thing the government should do."
A spokesman for Melinda Haag, the U.S. attorney for Northern California, declined to comment on the case. The subpoena does not make clear what or who is being investigated. A hearing is set for Jan. 29.
Mendocino County instituted County Code 9.31 in 2010 to try to control a surge of marijuana cultivation. Robberies jumped as newcomers flooded in. And with no regulation, many growers illegally graded, logged and diverted creeks to produce huge, multimillion-dollar crops.
Some local growers wanted to "reintegrate into the county and not feel like outlaws," said county Supervisor John McCowen. Those who registered with the sheriff had to install security fencing and cameras, pay permitting fees up to $6,450 a year and undergo inspections four times a year. Every plant was given a zip-tie with a sheriff's serial number on it.
Eighteen growers signed up the first year. Medical marijuana advocates hailed the zip-tie program as the first to create a clear, legal means for growers to supply the medical market.
George Unsworth, 60, was among those who participated. He loves to show photos from the day deputies first came to inspect his pot. "To be in a garden with them in a Mendocino forest, and not be in handcuffs facedown in the dirt, but to be shaking hands, it was beautiful," he said. "I take my hat off to Mendocino County."
The U.S. attorney was quick to show its disapproval. Drug Enforcement Administration agents raided the farm of the first person to register, Joy Greenfield. Still, 91 growers signed up the next year.
Agents then targeted Matt Cohen, the grower most vocal in advocating for the program and getting it set up.
Despite the raids, county officials planned to continue the program. It had paid for itself — generating an estimated $600,000 — over two years and allowed the sheriff to focus on growers causing more problems.
"The program drew a clear line between those who were doing everything to be compliant with local and state laws and people who were outlaws," McCowen said. "The marijuana industry was completely out of control, and the permit program was an effort to bring order out of chaos, and it was working."
But county officials stopped the permitting and inspections in March after the U.S. attorney threatened them with legal action. The federal subpoena landed in October, demanding records of inspections, applications, internal county emails, notes, memos and bank account numbers.
McCowen said he can't understand why prosecutors are focusing on the county's registered growers. "When you've eliminated all those outlaw, trespass growers, then come talk to us about our legally compliant 99-plant growers."
Lawyers for the county and the marijuana groups argue that the subpoena should be quashed because it seeks privileged information and would gut attempts to regulate medical marijuana. They say similar attempts by the federal government to undermine state and local marijuana laws were rejected in court.
Kristin Nevedal, chairwoman of the Emerald Growers Assn., said her members are very concerned about the subpoena. "All these folks who got involved in the zip-tie program really felt they were doing the right thing following state law."
Unsworth, who signed up for the program the first year, said he knew the demands by federal authorities were coming. An Air Force veteran with multiple sclerosis, he didn't care. He said he wanted to put his face on the medical marijuana movement and hopes the case goes to the Supreme Court.
"Until we change the federal law, we're breaking the law. Period. We're lawbreakers."