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A lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California on Sept. 12 by a group of Hmong plaintiffs led by Jesse Vang and Wang Chang against Siskiyou County, its sheriff (Jon Lopey), the county clerk (Coleen Setzer), along with an investigator for the secretary of state of California (Alex Nishimura) and many others, including the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
The lawsuit makes many claims, including voter intimidation and discrimination.
The Siskiyou Daily News described the lawsuit:
“The local government in Siskiyou County is engaged in a systemic campaign to deprive Plaintiffs, and other members of the Hmong community, of their right to vote, and their right to the exclusive use and enjoyment of their private property,” the complaint opens, pointing a finger at Siskiyou County Sheriff Jon Lopey, the county itself and members of the Secretary of State’s office, as well as CAL FIRE law enforcement.
The complaint focuses on Siskiyou County’s formation and implementation of ordinances aimed at regulating the cultivation of medicinal marijuana, and alleged actions taken by law enforcement and Siskiyou County Clerk Colleen Setzer as a part of the county’s eradication of marijuana grows on private property.
The complaint states that a number of people of Hmong descent had moved to rural areas of the county, purchasing property, with many utilizing the property to grow medicinal marijuana.
The plaintiffs argue that ordinances enacted by the county regarding marijuana cultivation “gave Sheriff Lopey unfettered power to target Hmong homeowners” when enforcing them, and allege that the sheriff and county disproportionately targeted the Hmong community for enforcement actions.
There is no doubt that a significant percentage of Hmong immigrants who have moved into Siskiyou County have taken up the cultivation of cannabis, allegedly for “personal medical use.” However, when any person grows more than the dozen plants legally allowed by Siskiyou County, which can yield five and up to 20 pounds of dried flowers (“buds”) per plant, any logical person has to ask: Can anyone even smoke or consume the low-end quantity of that cannabis annual production (27,240 grams of bud/year)?
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Another way to look at this: A normal cannabis cigarette (a “joint”) contains about one-half gram of bud. So the estimated legal yield from 12 cannabis plants in Siskiyou County of 27,240 grams of bud could potentially provide a “patient” with 54,480 joints. And 54,480 joints would provide an individual with about 150 joints (75 grams) per day annually for consumption.
If I were a judge in a case like this, I would insist on meeting anyone who could walk into a courtroom after smoking (or consuming) the equivalent of 150 joints in a day. Of course the next questions I would have for any such person would be: Did you drive yourself here today? And do you have a valid driver’s license? And if so, why? And finally, do you own any firearms?
Anyone who needs to use that much cannabis personally on an annual basis should not be allowed to drive or operate any equipment, nor should the person be allowed to possess any firearms. Of course we all know that nobody can legitimately consume that much of today’s potent cannabis, which proves the point that anyone who is not appropriately licensed and who is growing dozens of (or more) cannabis plants in Siskiyou County (and elsewhere) fully intends on breaking the federal, state and county laws and ordinances.
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Any claim that a medical patient (or recreational user) requires more than that monumental amount (27,000+ grams) of marijuana as personal “medicine” is just ridiculous. So why grow more?
This leaves us with the only other logical answer: money! Anyone engaged in the cultivation of quantities of cannabis beyond the legal personal limits in Siskiyou County is clearly planning on the illicit distribution and sale of a federally controlled Schedule 1 narcotic on the street, which has some very serious consequences, including adverse socioeconomic and public safety ramifications.
Some people may argue that cannabis could become legal for recreational use in 2017 if the November ballot measure in California passes. Yet, if we assume for the moment that an “individual” cannot smoke or consume more than 27,000 grams of pot, and if we take a just a minute to consider who is producing this bumper crop of black-market cannabis, a whole new set of important questions arise, which support the federal and state laws and the Siskiyou County ordinances that are in place for both legal and illegal cannabis production. And most importantly, the county cannabis laws were implemented by an overwhelming majority vote of citizens.
Legal (licensed) growers who in other states produce cannabis at commercial levels for resale are carefully monitored, their plants are subject to inspection by various agencies (Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Department of Agriculture, etc.), and their final products are laboratory tested for purity before they are sold to the public, and with good reason. This is not the case with cannabis grown illicitly for the black markets, which in most cases cannot pass the lab testing (pesticide and chemical screening) required for cannabis sold through legal dispensaries.
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Black-market growers (many of the Hmong growers in Siskiyou County are allegedly illicit growers) use many pesticides and other chemicals (some of which are banned for use in California) that remain in the final product to be consumed by people (in the flowers/buds), which if ingested can cause various health problems, including cancer. Let’s face it, there is no debate that it’s wrong at every level to be poisoning people with tainted cannabis.
I am surprised that OSHA and the USDA haven’t stepped into the fray in Siskiyou and other counties in California in the interests of protecting the health of the public (workers and consumers of cannabis) who are and will be exposed to the “commercial use” of the pesticides and chemicals being used by illicit and unmonitored cannabis growers. For instance, do these growers properly post the Hazard Communication Standard: Safety Data Sheets – OSHA 3514?
The unmonitored and unapproved commercial use of various pesticides, rodenticides and many other chemicals by illegal Hmong and other growers also presents a huge environmental impact, adversely affecting the local wildlife and introducing toxins into the wildlife food chain and ground and surface water sources, killing countless birds, reptiles and small mammals and sickening larger mammals like deer.
It should be noted that the dangerous contaminants (pesticides, etc.) that remain in the final cannabis products (flowers and oil extracts) being produced by many of the illegal growers are far more insidious than those that caused the Surgeon General to require health warnings on cigarettes and tobacco products.
It’s also a fact that when illicit cannabis growers sell their crops, they also cheat the county, state and federal government by not paying any taxes on the in-state (and any out-of-state) sales (export-import) of their crops, yet they claim to reside in and use state and county resources. The sales of illicit cannabis grown in Siskiyou County provides many tens of millions of dollars in cash into the pockets of the growers, who have ample financing to leverage public opinion as well as fund bogus lawsuits as yet another form of intimidating local governments.
A logical person might also wonder: Where are the IRS and the FBI in regard to the implied cash money laundering and racketeering associated with this huge annual cash flow? Has anyone asked to see the past three years of federal and state tax returns of these illicit growers? Do the attorneys for the Hmong plaintiffs accept their undeclared cash as payment for services? I can imagine that the attorneys for the defendants will be having a very interesting time during the “discovery” phase of the litigation.
Public health issues and ‘the right to quiet enjoyment’
Imagine for the moment that you are retired and own a decent home in a neighborhood where there is a mix of homes and vacant home sites (lots) for sale. And then someone buys the lot next to you, moves onto the land and starts using an open-pit cesspool for human waste and has no garbage service. And added to that, the so-called neighbor starts growing dozens, or in some cases hundreds, of illicit cannabis plants, necessitating many field workers to manage the crop. Of course they have no source of on-site water, so that necessitates numerous water trucks per garden and many business-related cars driving up and down the minimal neighborhood roads, creating dust clouds that fill the air, which are occasionally scented with pesticides and the smells associated with these enterprises. This has all occurred in some neighborhoods in Siskiyou County. And the citizens in those neighborhoods who are not illegal pot growers are themselves denied the “quiet enjoyment” that the Hmong growers claim in their lawsuit they have been denied. Talk about spinning a story on its head!
When the illicit cannabis cultivation industry became an obvious and serious problem for Siskiyou County as a result of hundreds of citizen complaints being lodged with the county and its sheriff, the county asked its citizens for input regarding a fair and reasonable solution that still allows personal-use cannabis cultivation, as is the democratic process. Cannabis measures “T” and “U” were ultimately placed on the county ballot for the June 7 vote. These measures gave the county the tools it needed to help control and abate illicit cannabis growers in the county, while simultaneously assuring that people who needed a reasonable amount of cannabis as medicine could legally produce their own via a dozen plants.
However, these measures presented a serious impediment to all the illicit commercial-level growers who want to illegally grow dozens and hundreds of plants, including the large, well-organized ethnic group of Hmong growers.
Unlike other illicit commercial growers in the county, the Hmong people obviously realized that they represented an ethnic minority there, and it now seems they are trying to capitalize and take advantage of that position with their recently filed lawsuit, which falsely alleges voter intimidation and discrimination among other sensational claims.
It’s a sad fact that the American judicial system is now burdened with cases that smack of “abuse of process,” and in the case of these Hmong plaintiffs, such a theory seems to fit the facts. This lawsuit seems to be no more than a baseless counterattack by some illegal pot growers — retaliation for the law enforcement actions against their alleged illegal enterprises. It’s about the money.
Some of the other salient points
The Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office has at all relevant times exercised law and zoning code enforcement authority without regard to the ethnicity of the violators, and this practice is well-known among non-Hmong growers. It is important to note that in 2016, numerous enforcement actions have been taken of the type alleged in the complaint against those of other than Hmong ethnicity.
The Hmong plaintiffs’ claim that Siskiyou County did not enforce its ordinances requiring county-approved water and septic before significant numbers of Hmong people began taking title to land in the county is manifestly false. Aside from the county’s common-sense health ordinances, any layperson realizes that approved septic and water services are essentials for basic sanitation and public health even at a personal level.
The fact that voting enforcement efforts were taken against many members of the Hmong community was because of the concerted action by members of that community to attempt voter registration from parcels on which no legal residence was allowed, and which were not bona fide domiciles under state law. California law does allow, under certain circumstances, domicile to be established from “public camp or camping grounds” (Election Code section 2027), but it does not allow domicile to be established where residence is unlawful.
On its face, the evidence suggests a concerted and unlawful effort by marijuana growers to influence the outcome of the June election on Siskiyou County measures “T” and “U” — and having lost the election, they now demand immunity from enforcement of those ordinances and others. Marijuana enforcement efforts have been taken against many members of the Hmong community because of their conduct in growing marijuana in violation of local ordinances, not from any form of discrimination.
As of this writing, the sheriff of Siskiyou County and his office continue to enforce marijuana-related ordinances and laws against all violators, whether or not of Hmong ethnicity. It should be noted that the vast majority of county residents hold Sheriff Lopey in very high regard, and his record in law enforcement is exemplary.
If the theory of the Hmong plaintiffs’ complaint were to be accepted by the court, any minority community would be privileged to violate local and even federal laws to the extent that it organized itself to violate the law in concert, so that enforcement efforts for the organized-for violation appear to disproportionately target that minority group. Allowing this to go unchecked would assure further lawlessness in our state and county.
The views expressed in this opinion article are solely those of their author and are not necessarily either shared or endorsed by the owners of this website.