A new crackdown has begun in California’s cannabis growing heartland of Humboldt County. For unlicensed farmers, a summer of reckoning has arrived.

Now that local and state authorities have provisionally licensed about 1,500 legal cannabis farms statewide, they’re stepping up enforcement actions against farmers growing without a permit. County officials are doing it not with SWAT team raids, but by enforcing a laundry list of civil codes. And it’s having an effect. Civil code enforcement is decimating California’s legacy cannabis growers like criminal prohibition never could.

Fines of $10,000 per day, per violation—maxing out at $900,000, followed by property liens and forfeiture—have replaced traditional fears of a sheriff’s raid in Humboldt this summer.

Officials tell Leafly the Humboldt County Planning and Building Department has sent out 148 cannabis-related “Notices to Abate” to property owners so far in 2019. The county sent 597 abatement notices in 2018.

Recipients have ten days to remove their plants or they face record fines—far higher than monetary penalties enacted against any other business type. If you chop down your plants the same day you get the notice, you face a minimum $10,000 fine on your property. If you don’t, fines can run up to 90 days, totaling $900,000, followed by a county collection action, and potential loss of the property.

A notice to abate recently posted on an unlicensed Humboldt County cannabis farm. (Photo courtesy of Redheaded Blackbelt)

The results speak for themselves. Humboldt County has assessed $3.28 million in cannabis abatement fines for the years 2018 and 2019. So far, 376 cannabis-related code violations have been abated or are in the process of being abated. The county has filed liens on five properties.

Longtime criminal defense attorney Omar Figueroa says civil code enforcers armed with satellite imagery have changed the decades-old game of cannabis farmer whack-a-mole. County officials spot tiny grow structures from space using satellite images, and then send abatement notices to any property without a cultivation license.

“It’s having a pretty strong deterrent effect because people don’t want to lose everything they’ve worked for—mainly their property,” Figueroa says. “Humboldt used to be a place you could hide under the trees, but with satellite mapping it’s much more challenging to have an unpermitted cannabis grow.”

Same in Sonoma County

A similar dynamic is playing out in another legacy cannabis-growing center, Sonoma County, just north of San Francisco. Attorney Joe Rogoway doesn’t even do criminal work anymore. He represents clients facing “seven-figure” fines who’ve stopped growing in Sonoma County. Sonoma County has issued $1.77 million in cannabis civil fines to date for the years 2018 and 2019.

“It’s stopping them,” Rogoway tells Leafly. “They don’t have a choice. It’s $10,000 per day. Sonoma County has just been rabid with all this—it’s been terrible.”

Second Wave: Retail Stores

Illegal retail stores are next. A cannabis regulations law—AB 97—passed July 1 in Sacramento and creates $30,000 fines, per day, for operating an illegal storefront. The fines are designed to target the hundreds of illegal stores competing against the legal ones in Los Angeles.

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