The four young men had just started their marijuana harvest in rural Northern California when a dozen sheriff’s deputies swooped in with guns drawn, arrested them and spent the day chopping down 150 bushy plants with machetes.
“I could do this every day if I had the personnel,” Calaveras County Sheriff Rick DiBasilio said during the operation near the Sierra foothills town of Copperopolis, about two hours east of San Francisco. Authorities this year have cut down close to 30,000 plants grown without permits in a county that is reconsidering its embrace of marijuana cultivation on the eve of statewide legalization.
“There are just so many of them,” the sheriff said of the illegal farms. “It’s never-ending.”
Marijuana has deeply divided the financially strapped county, among many where growers are increasingly open about their operations and are starting to encroach on neighborhoods.
DiBasilio estimates the county – population 44,000 and about the size of Rhode Island – has more than 1,000 illegal farms in addition to the hundreds with permits or in the process of obtaining them. The influx has caused a backlash among residents and led to the ouster of some county leaders who approved marijuana cultivation.
Pot farmers operating legally, meanwhile, say they are helping the local economy, and have threatened to sue over attempts to stop them.
California is set to issue licenses in January to grow, transport and sell weed for recreational purposes, nearly 20 years after the state first authorized the drug’s consumption with a doctor’s recommendation.
Farmers can legally grow marijuana for recreational consumption next year but are required to get a local permit before applying for a state license, which has sparked a boom in pot-friendly counties.
Calaveras County legalized medical marijuana cultivation last year, seeking to tax the hundreds of farms that