This story originally appeared in the Siskiyou Daily News. Republished with permission.
YREKA, CA — A request by Siskiyou County Sheriff Jon Lopey that the Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors declare a local emergency due to illegal cannabis cultivation sparked an hours long discussion on Tuesday afternoon at the Siskiyou County Courthouse in Yreka.
Numerous people packed the supervisors’ chambers for the afternoon meeting, where the board was tasked with deciding whether or not it would proclaim that the proliferation of illegal cannabis cultivation presents a problem that is beyond the control of local agencies.
Lopey spoke first, stating that he believes the proclamation is necessary due to a large number of illicit cannabis cultivation sites discovered throughout the county. He said that he believes the sites present myriad dangers to the environment, quality of life, and public safety.
Lopey called attention to the use of illegal pesticides, improper storage of waste, the lack of permitted living quarters, and other issues that might exist at the site of an illegal cannabis cultivation operation.
Many stated that they were fearful that it would mean that federal authorities would descend upon the county and raid their private property.
What the proclamation could do, he posited, is open up possibilities for outside resources from the state and federal governments to assist the county in addressing illegal cultivation.
Lopey also stressed that the focus of the proclamation is on illegal cannabis cultivation, stating that people using medical or recreational cannabis within the confines of the law are not the target.
The board then opened up the public comment period, which featured testimony from dozens of constituents, both those opposed to and in support of the proclamation.
The majority of speakers – many of whom stated that they were of Hmong descent – expressed opposition to the proclamation, and stated that they were fearful that it would mean that federal authorities would descend upon the county and raid their private property.
A number of speakers took an opportunity to share their personal histories, detailing the impacts the Vietnam War had on their families and themselves, and how those experiences have shaped both their expectations for living in America and how they expected they would be welcomed.
The stories ranged from one man, who said he was called upon at the age of 10 to help fight against the spread of communism in Vietnam, to another man who said that he had assisted the Central Intelligence Agency cut off the Ho Chi Minh Trail and rescue downed American bomber pilots.
Many speakers who shared their stories of the war said, in one form or another, that they wanted the county – and country – to love them as they loved America.
The discussion touched on a number of issues surrounding the Hmong commmunity’s struggles both in and out of the county, with a large number of speakers urging the board to not label the entire community as drug dealers based on the actions of a few.
Many members of the Hmong community expressed their opposition to the proposed proclamation, and a number of residents in areas with large numbers of cannabis cultivation sites spoke in favor of it.
Sheriff Jon Lopey explained that it was hoped that the proclamation would help the county leverage resources from the state and federal governments in order to respond to what he estimated to be approximately 2,000 illicit cannabis cultivation sites spread around the county in such subdivisions as the Klamath River Country Estates, Mount Shasta Vista and Mount Shasta Forest areas.
Dozens of members of the public spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting, touching on a wide array of topics.
The vast majority of speakers identified themselves as members of the Hmong community, urging the board to not adopt the proclamation. Many said that they were fearful that the proclamation would lead to federal raids on their property regardless of whether or not they were cultivating within the confines of the county’s ordinances.
Various themes were consistent in the speakers’ words, including being left alone on private property and having Constitutional rights respected, and requests to have the board understand that many are cultivating cannabis for various maladies. Some speakers indicated that they use cannabis to relieve pain from prior surgeries, and one speaker noted that many members of the Hmong community use cannabis to reduce the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from experiences during the Vietnam War.
Various speakers explained that they had themselves participated in the Central Intelligence Agency’s secret war in Laos during the Vietnam War, or had lost family members in the war or to the communist regime that ultimately took over the country.
Still others invited people to get to know members of the Hmong community, and argued that the county and law enforcement should differentiate between cultivators growing illegally and the property owners who either do not grow or are operating within the county’s guidelines.
Some members of the Hmong community also expressed fear of law enforcement actions, and many said that they support Lopey’s efforts to root out illegal cultivators.
Those supporting the proclamation touched on a variety of concerns, with one major concern being the condition of certain lots both during and after the cultivation season. Echoing concerns in the proclamation itself, many said that they were concerned about impacts to property values, with various sites left full of garbage and other forms of waste. Others said that they were concerned about dogs roaming free, and shared that they felt intimidated by some cultivators who did not want anyone near their property.
Some speakers in support of the proclamation, along with Lopey, stated that they believe no one who is growing within the county’s laws has anything to fear from enforcement efforts, and many repeated the idea that, if members of the Hmong community wanted to be welcomed in the county, they must follow the county’s laws.
The hours-long comment period became a back-and-forth, with subsequent speakers answering questions posed by earlier speakers. For instance, members of the Hmong community, responding to a question of why they do not have children on their properties if they want to be a part of the community, noted that they are of retirement age and have children who are now in college or simply do not live at home.
One speaker also related that some members of the community had been led to believe that they could not have children on the parcels they purchased, even if they had an established home.
Miscommunication between groups and education about the various laws at play were also themes throughout the discussion. Mouying Lee, who has been at the forefront of the Siskiyou cannabis cultivation discussion in recent years, told the board that he has had difficulty explaining to some members of the community that even if a doctor prescribes up to 99 plants – a limit set by the state – local jurisdictions can set their own limits, such as Siskiyou County’s 12 plant cap.
Lee urged the board and Lopey to step up efforts to help educate members of the Hmong community, and suggested possibly producing brochures in their native language. Many speakers utilized the assistance of a translator during the meeting, and Lee said that having the laws explained in the Hmong language could help reduce the number of sites that have more than the allowed number of plants.
One final theme that came out of the meeting was a desire to open communication between the various communities at the heart of the issue. Lopey and members of the board explained that they are open to town hall meetings to help constituents understand rules and regulations.
Lopey also clarified that the emergency proclamation does not target any specific community, but ultimately is an attempt to respond to illegal activity that has proven to be beyond the county’s capability to address.
He also shared some of his military experience, noting that he spent time overseas defending people of different cultures, explaining that he had sworn to give his life protecting the people of Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and other southeast Asian nations.
Lopey touched on some of the comments about his department noting that he has been called a thief and a terrorist, and has been accused of harassing the Hmong community, and argued that he and his department seek justice and fairness for all.
“We welcome all people to our county, but I ask one thing: They know the law and everyone should follow the law,” he said.
The board’s discussion came at the end of the public comment period, and each supervisor expressed support for the proclamation, calling attention to the impacts of illegal cultivation, from illegal pesticide use to the increased risk of fire from cooking outdoors.
District 4 Supervisor Lisa Nixon asked members of the Hmong community for help in explaining what the law is and how to follow it, and supervisors Michael Kobseff and Ray Haupt both noted that they support the proclamation as a measure to protect the general public as well as cultivators who may be at increased risk living in non-permitted housing and using campfires to cook in dry conditions.
Taken to a vote, the board unanimously supported the proclamation of a local emergency. District 2 Supervisor Ed Valenzuela closed out the comments with a call for continued outreach and communication so that constituents and the county can work together toward a common goal.