Siskiyou County Sheriff Suddenly Interested In Investigating ‘Environmental Crimes’ (The Rise Of The Natural Cop) – High Country News – Know the West – Advice Eating

Last summer, Jeremiah LaRue, the recently appointed sheriff for Siskiyou County, posted a video on YouTube explaining two of the county’s controversial new groundwater laws. The drought was severe this year, he said, and the “wasteful abstraction” of water for illegal cannabis cultivation made it worse. LaRue appeared like a news anchor in front of a green screen projection of iconic Mount Shasta, while stock photos of cannabis plants, gunmen and helicopters punctuated his talking points. The new water laws would ban the supply of groundwater to cannabis farms, which LaRue called the most effective strategy to prevent them from “increasing violent crime, draining our water, and polluting our environment.”

Environmentalist rhetoric and water policy talk signaled a change in the way LaRue’s department oversaw the illicit cannabis industry. Increasingly responsible for the county’s land use and water, LaRue said News from the Highlands that he needs better “tools” – criminal sanctions – to deal with “environmental crimes”.

A few months later, the county board of supervisors that appointed him passed a new budget approving over $27 million for police protection — about $1.6 million more than the county manager recommended and over $4.1 million US dollars more were spent than in the previous year. The marijuana suppression expiration budget line — money earmarked for confiscation — nearly doubled, from just over $61,000 in fiscal 2020-2021 to nearly $119,000 for 2022. It was the largest increase for a decade. Meanwhile, the county planning department, which oversees water, building and general environmental regulations, struggled to keep its small team of enforcement officials on hold.

The budget increase reflects the county’s cannabis boom, something historically difficult to quantify as it veered in and out of legality. In 2019, the Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors declared a “state of emergency,” claiming that over 2,000 large and small “growing areas” were scattered in the arid valley and overwhelmed the sheriff’s office. In an affidavit in early 2022, LaRue said the “craggy, pristine landscape” was “covered with unauthorized, temporary structures.” In response, the sheriff’s office is cracking down on what it sees as an ever-growing problem. Rather than implement a permitting system to handle the uptick, Siskiyou officials decided to ban cannabis farms and enact a policy to eradicate as many crops as possible.

Hmong American and other Southeast Asian American farmers are frequent targets in recent efforts to shut down illicit cannabis cultivation. Even those who don’t grow commercial cannabis are vulnerable to armed robbery. Those who grow it commercially face hefty fines and the risk of losing their land—property some of them bought with their savings. (See previous reports on Shasta Vista that appeared in the November 2021 issue of this magazine.) “The district is trying to expel the Hmong,” wrote Khue Cha, a Hmong resident, in an affidavit submitted to the district. “They have no right to do so, because this land belongs to us.”

LaRue said cannabis farmers litter the area and that landowners who rent to them “prostitute” their property. He wants more criminal penalties – not only to stop cannabis farmers, but also the environmental problems he believes they are causing. “We need these laws,” he said HCN in February. “There is no other way to protect our country.”

In the hills of Siskiyou County, people have been growing cannabis for decades, but the industry expanded after California legalized cannabis in 2016. Around the same time, a predominantly Hmong American community began farming small sub-areas in the Shasta Valley. Within a year, the county banned all commercial cannabis, despite decriminalization trends across the country. The move changed the course of county policy, which had focused on regulating the market but did little to discourage farming. Over the years, investors have purchased large tracts of land to produce cannabis on an unregulated, industrial scale – a stark contrast to smaller cannabis growers, according to real estate experts and landowners, farmers, residents and researchers News from the Highlands interviewed.

“The county is trying to expel the Hmong. You have no right because this land is ours.”

The boom has real environmental implications: it increases demand for an already strained water supply and poses potential threats to its availability and quality. “Even without cannabis, there is not much room to expand the irrigated area in current climate conditions,” says Laura Foglia, a hydrogeologist at the University of California. Davis and a Shasta Valley groundwater expert, said.

With the worsening effects of climate change, Siskiyou County’s efforts to “protect” land and “conserve” water through cannabis eradication have garnered some local support. But current policy isn’t based on hard science: Little is actually known about agricultural practices in the region, and hydrologists say nobody knows exactly how much water is used by cannabis growers.

Local farmers dispute the county’s estimates, and a recent letter from the State Water Resources Control Board said the amount of groundwater the county claims the farms are using is “unlikely” to result in aquifer decline .

said LaRue HCN that he believes cannabis is a threat to his community’s water and way of life, a sentiment reminiscent of xenophobia: the area’s cannabis farmers and workers are largely Asian. LaRue blamed a “criminal component” for the increase in criminal cannabis activity and violence, suggesting links between crime, gangs and “Chinese nationals in our community” despite the lack of evidence. And his campaign to “protect” groundwater has targeted minority farmers, branding them misfits and criminals.

Now LaRue is working with the California Environmental Protection Agency to train lawmakers to identify chemicals and pesticides as possible evidence of environmental crimes, while his department coordinates with the state Water Resources Control Board to gather evidence of water violations. Still, he says he’s frustrated because his hands are tied by environmental laws. “Fines are useless,” LaRue said in a February interview. “It may look good on paper, but these people will only react if there are consequences.”

In early 2022, the California legislature introduced a bill that would make unlicensed cannabis cultivation, which used to be a misdemeanor, a felony punishable by up to three years in prison. Similarly, at the local level, LaRue plans to increase punishment and points to the possibility of prosecuting landowners and farmers for conspiracy, a felony.

However, in Siskiyou County, such punishment is handled unevenly. According to the U.S. Census, Asian Americans make up just 2.6% of the county’s population, but between 2019 and 2021, they were involved in 27.4% of traffic delays, 78% of cannabis cultivation subpoenas, and nearly 82% of liens, according to attorneys the ACLU and the Asian Law Caucus. Many residents of Hmong America describe being victims of racial profiling, economic boycotts, and other forms of discrimination.

The sheriff and county government rely on creating “hooks of fear” to justify their eradication policies, said Margiana Petersen-Rockney, a University of California, Berkeley researcher studying Siskiyou County’s cannabis prohibition. “Associating certain groups with environmental fears has a long history,” Petersen-Rockney said. “Putting these people off their land has proven to be a very effective strategy.”

Theo Whitcomb is an editorial intern at News from the Highlands. email him a [email protected] or send a letter to the editor. See ours Letters to the Editor Politics.

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