Madness and greed have sparked a spate of home invasions, violent crimes and robberies, some botched, that have taken place from Cloverdale and Santa Rosa to Sebastopol and Petaluma.
Thieves, many from the East Coast, have arrived with guns and the intention of stealing weed, transporting it across the country and selling it at a profit where cannabis is illegal.
They have often had what Sgt. Spencer Crum, at the Sonoma County sheriff’s department, calls “bad intelligence.” Indeed, they usually don’t score big. Cops arrest them and jail them, though murders have also taken place and a few bodies have piled up.
As Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner, Tony Linegar, says, “Marijuana is so valuable men are willing to kill for it.’’
Linegar also says that ‘’marijuana ought to be treated as any other crop, provided that public safety is assured, banking issues are resolved and the smell of marijuana doesn’t adversely affect neighbors.’’
The industry, which is supposed to be regulated and taxed, is troubled by lawlessness. Tens of millions of dollars never make it into bank accounts, but that money, which is “laundered,” sustains families and even helps keep towns afloat.
In an email to Linegar, I suggested that if the price of marijuana drops and the crop is only as valuable as, say, grapes, then violent crimes might end.
Linegar agreed that a decline in the dollar value of marijuana might help decrease theft and murder, but he insisted that the two key issues that would eradicate crime in and around pot fields are “ending the federal prohibition and resolving the banking issue.”
Neither is likely to happen soon.
Meanwhile, Sonoma County entrepreneurs are creating a sane future here and now. Brandon Levine, 38, is one of the most rational of the many innovators in the crowded cannabis field. The director of Mercy Wellness, the only permitted marijuana dispensary in Cotati, Levine has embraced the newest technologies and created secure space inside and outside his dispensary.
He pays his taxes and keeps accurate financial records; he was audited once by the IRS and learned his lesson.
Mercy has surveillance cameras everywhere; the vault is impregnable, the staff is loyal; plus the employees are learning heaps about the cannabis products they’re selling.
If Go Local were to designate a marijuana hero for the first 90 days of 2018, that would likely be Levine, though he and his dispensary have had their share of troubles, including market fluctuations and scarcity of product.
It’s not easy to operate a dispensary. You have to make up the rules, with help from the authorities, as you go along. Levine knows that story from his negotiations with the city of Cotati that has been exceedingly cooperative with him and with Mercy Wellness.
There are checkpoints all along the way, from seeds to sales, and the local and state permitting process is bogged down. Not surprisingly, only 1 percent of the estimated 60,000 cannabis cultivators in California have a permit.
Mercy Wellness, now entering its eighth year, is a popular destination. Customers drive an hour or so from the town of Sonoma because there’s no dispensary close to home. That’s crazy.
Still, there are clear thinkers and doers like Brandon Levine, and like Steve Sogin, a Sonoma County financier, who wants to help the marijuana economy and make money for himself.
Sogin aim to create what he calls a ‘’homegrown banking system.’’ He think there’s big money to be made.
“There is a huge medical future for marijuana,’’ Sogin assured me. “It will be used more effectively than statins and painkillers.”
He added that marijuana ought to be grown indoors, not outdoors, and that it should be “year round cultivation with a crop harvested every six weeks.”
Sogin’s plan probably means more industrialization of marijuana, more product control, more profits and perhaps less violence, though Linegar is right when he says that violence won’t really stop until the federal prohibition against marijuana ends.
Linegar was also on target when he recently told a crowd made up largely of growers that, “If the overall goal of the marijuana program was to favor a corporate, big dollar, new money industry then we have succeeded.”
Despite that sad situation, Mercy Wellness customers look and sound happy. Half of the patients are over the age of 45; 25 percent are seniors who receive a 10 percent discount. They buy and use marijuana to help them sleep at night. One older customer in shorts, flip-flops and a T-shirt that read: “The Godfather” was ecstatically happy to get his medicine on the morning I visited the dispensary.
Mercy is expanding the size of its own cultivation site; the company has lost 95 percent of its providers and has to supply itself or die.
‘’We’re banding together to make this whole thing work,’’ Levine told me. ‘’But it’s tough. Growers have been in the shadows for so long they feel they have to stay there. If they out themselves they’re afraid they’ll lose their livelihood.’’
Jonah Raskin, a professor emeritus at Sonoma State University, is the author of Marijuana: Dispatches from an American War, published in French as well as English, and shares story credit for the feature length pot film Homegrown.