Drug war overkill: A pot bust against legal growers in Yolo County seems to go too far
Marijuana came to the valley, and now agricultural real estate is booming. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)
If ever you needed proof that we live in an age of confusion about marijuana laws, let me share with you the story of Ted Hicks and Ryan Mears, two Sacramento-area entrepreneurs who decided to start a legal medical cannabis business last year and ended up on the business end of assault rifles wielded by officers from a multi-agency, anti-drug task force.
I first heard about the case from Yolo County Supervisor Don Saylor in September, at a “State of Marijuana” conference aboard the Queen Mary in Long Beach. Saylor, who was on a panel discussing how cities and counties were dealing with cannabis regulation, said that Hicks and Mears and their business, Big Red Farms, were considered by county officials to be “shining stars” in the cannabis licensing arena.
“They looked for guidance, they complied, they set up irrigation systems, drainage, applied for Water Quality Control Board permits, all in place, then something like this happens,” said Saylor, who compared the raids, which took place simultaneously at four locations, to “terrorist activity.”
“The children are traumatized,” he said, “and the grown-ups are still shaking from the experience.”
I can confirm the part about the grown-ups. I sat with Hicks and Mears on Wednesday in the office of their Sacramento attorney, Mark Reichel, and both grew tearful as they recalled the terror they felt when dozens of gun-wielding officers pounded on their front doors the morning of Sept. 14.
“I told my 2-year-old son to stay upstairs,” said Mears, 35. “When I opened the security door, there were 15 cops with assault rifles drawn, pointed, with their fingers on the trigger, in vests, ski masks. They grabbed me and pulled me out front, put me in handcuffs. There were 20 to 30 officers. My son walked downstairs and my wife had to grab him. They had guns pulled on them. It was real painful.”
“Easily, it was the worst day of my life,” said Hicks, 43. “Every gun you can imagine was pointed at me. I was like, ‘Why is this happening?’ To add icing to the cake, it was my son’s fourth birthday.”
The Winters farm where they cultivated was searched. Their crop, more than 1,000 plants, was destroyed. Nearby, the home of the man they leased the farm from, Ravi Tumber, was raided as well. Tumber, 48, who had his own small licensed medical cannabis grow at the farm, was standing in a vineyard below his hilltop home, harvesting Syrah grapes. The sight of all the cop cars coming down his road put him in mind of immigration busts. “I thought, ‘My guys are legal. What is happening?’”
Officers broke down his front door but didn’t cuff him. Still, he said, “The extreme place they went boggled my mind.”
Last week, Hicks and Mears were charged by Yolo County prosecutors with two criminal counts: illegally cultivating marijuana, a misdemeanor, and conspiracy for planning “to commit sales of marijuana,” a felony. Each carries a potential sentence of a year in jail, according to Reichel. (Tumber has not been charged.)
“The cops were cracking jokes the whole time,” said Mears, who wears his long red beard in a distinctive braid. “They said, ‘None of this is going to matter in a couple months anyway because of Proposition 64.’ I said, ‘Then why are you tearing apart my house and my family?’ They said, ‘We’re just doing our jobs.’”
But are they?
On Nov. 9, nearly 60% of Yolo County voters approved Proposition 64, which legalized pot for adult recreational use in California. I have to believe one reason Proposition 64 passed so handily is that the public has had it with expensive, heavy-handed raids that result in relatively minor charges against people who are trying to stay inside the lines.
“As you are trying to develop policy, you are going out to all these folks who are cultivating and you are trying to bring them into the regulatory framework,” said Yolo County Agriculture Commissioner John Young. “When something like this occurs, it is counterproductive to compliance.”
The rules governing the marijuana industry in this state are a complex, contradictory morass that will take years to sort out.
Proposition 64’s passage means adults over 21 may possess up to an ounce of pot, and grow six plants at home. Yet no one will be able to legally purchase recreational pot until 2018.
Medical cannabis, on the other hand, can be grown only by nonprofit collectives. The amount grown by each collective is supposed to be related to the number of patient members. But sometimes, in order to give potential patients free samples, growers will ask them to sign up for their collectives. This is a way of staying true to the letter of the law. Californians with medical marijuana cards can join as many collectives as they please.
Last spring at a San Francisco cannabis festival called HempCon, according to the criminal complaint, Mears and Hicks gave free samples of pot to at least 250 medical marijuana patients who signed up for their collective. This is often how collectives sign patients up.
“You have to have some way of letting people know about your product,” said Chris Conrad, a court-qualified expert on California cannabis law.
Investigators seized on this later.
“We didn’t know when we went in that it was a fraudulent collective,” said Brandon Olivera, the commander of the TRIDENT task force who conducted the September raids. “We figured that out afterward.”
So where, exactly, was the fraud, I asked him.
“We called every person they were growing for,” Olivera told me, “like 300 or 400 people, and almost every person said, ‘We have no idea what the hell Big Red’s collective is.’ Less than five even knew who the hell they were.”
Not to be too much of a smartass here, but if a district attorney’s investigator phoned you after you signed up for a cannabis collective at a hemp festival and started asking questions, what the hell would you tell him?
When I reached Olivera by phone on Thursday, he sounded pleased that prosecutors charged Hicks and Mears.
“I guess TRIDENT isn’t such a terrorist group after all,” he said. “We’ve taken a bath in the media and other law enforcement, and thank God the Yolo County D.A. did the right thing.”
Olivera scoffed at the idea that anyone was traumatized by the early morning raids. “It was the most peaceful search warrant I have ever been involved with in 20 years of law enforcement,” he said. “I have photographs of us interacting with the children.”
Perhaps if you raid people at gunpoint for a living, you may become desensitized to how it feels to be taken unawares by men with guns.
Whatever becomes of this prosecution — and I am rooting for the case to be dismissed — it’s got to somehow sink in to law enforcement and prosecutors: When it comes to cannabis entrepreneurs who play by the rules, the Drug War is over. You guys lost.