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Major Pot Eradication Effort ‘Operation Clean Sweep’ Underway in Emerald Triangle

'Operation Clean Sweep’ Brings Troops to the Triangle
PHOTO Forest Service, USDA

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Major Pot Eradication Effort ‘Operation Clean Sweep’ Underway in Emerald Triangle

As local, state and national police team up to shut down illegal cannabis grows in Northern California, advocates say the enforcement action is extreme and civil penalties should be enough.

Major enforcement actions against unlicensed cannabis farms across the Emerald Triangle continued this week, with the Mendocino County Sheriff’s office announcing on Monday that the effort had been named “Operation Clean Sweep” and it was being conducted in tandem with the National Guard and numerous other agencies.

According to a press release from the sheriff on July 15, the enforcement agencies will spend the week of July 15 to July 19 targeting the Eel River watershed to search non-permitted cannabis cultivation sites.

The Eel River winds its way through the Northern California hills that have traditionally hosted much of America’s illicit cannabis cultivation. However, since California opened up for adult-use cultivation licenses in 2018, many farmers have since made the jump to the legal market or quit the game entirely because of the increased cost of compliance.

“All the sites will be those of non-permitted cannabis cultivation sites that are believed to be involved in water diversion and other situations of environmental degradation that impacts several watersheds in the greater Eel River area of Northern Mendocino County,” the statement reads.

In addition to the National Guard, the sheriff’s office said it was working with the state’s Department of Food and Agriculture via its CalCannabis licensing arm, the Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Water Resource Board and Cal Fire to serve search warrants on both public and private lands to investigate illegal cannabis farming sites they’ve identified prior to the week’s actions.

“The collaboration includes pre-identified sites that do not have cannabis permits, state water permits for cannabis or permits from Cal Fire for deforestation and legal tree removal,” the statement reads.

The sheriff also noted people registered as having cannabis licenses with CalCannabis will not be the focus of the operation.  

According to sources who spoke with Cannabis Now, word started getting around town last week that something was up. One licensed grower told Cannabis Now that many roads in the area were graded, so between that infrastructure improvement and the ultra-low helicopter flyovers, people knew police were getting ready for something. In light of the forthcoming heat, the Mendocino Cannabis Alliance issued a statement last week saying the pending enforcement action was causing significant concern.

According to MCA, Sheriff Tom Allman told MCA Board member and attorney Hannah Nelson, “No National Guard will be involved in cannabis eradication, though other members of the County of Mendocino Marijuana Eradication Team (COMMET) will be conducting eradication and members of resource agencies will be present to document environmental and water violations.”

When Nelson told the sheriff about worries that farmers trying to enter the regulated market might get caught up in the enforcement, Allman replied “that all activities are pursuant to search warrants and are not wide-ranging ‘fishing’ expeditions,” according to the statement.

The MCA noted that such intense police action against cannabis cultivators can have negative psychological consequences.

“The widespread use of National Guard helicopters and personnel, along with other military-style enforcement tactics should be reserved for only the most egregious situations,” said the MCA.

“It is well documented that the populations within legacy cannabis-producing regions have been disproportionately impacted by the U.S. War on Drugs, including having suffered through militarized enforcement actions, which at times left lasting trauma, including PTSD,” MCA said, “Many of the same victims have now bravely stepped forward to enter the highly regulated industry.”

The MCA also added that if the targeted grows have some kind of environmental crime going on, they could be subjected to a felony.

Since California legalized adult-use cannabis, the state has increasingly relied on abatement notices and civil fines — often at sky-high rates of $10,000 a day — for unpermitted cannabis growing.

The MCA said Humboldt has seen a 700% increase in successful enforcement since legalization because of these civil measures.

“The widespread use of National Guard helicopters and personnel, along with other military-style enforcement tactics should be reserved for only the most egregious situations,” said the MCA.

A local farmer told Cannabis Now that 40 police vehicles recently broke into three groups and wound their way through Spy Rock, California and the surrounding communities. The licensed farmer claimed National Guard choppers were only 20 feet above the treeline on his farm and police on the roads scared off his water truck.

Local radio station KMUD reported receiving numerous calls from concerned residents on Monday. KMUD reached out to the sheriff, who confirmed they would be operating in the area through the end of the month.

“We’re very much focused on environmental crimes specifically,” Allman told KMUD listeners. He noted on illegal water diversion and illegal earthmoving to fill in valleys to create more space to grow.

Allman went on to speak on the National Guard presence. “The Air National Guard is involved as you may know. Air National Guard units cannot cut down cannabis. But they can provide air support for the personnel who are doing their job,” Allman said, calling it one big team.

Allman said this wasn’t a surprise and many people are at odds with the voters’ intentions of what Prop 64 was supposed to do. He also noted he was in full support of similar operations in Humboldt County.

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