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CalEmbarrassed County

Calaveras County has just censured hundreds of legal marijuana growers by declaring their operations illegal — after charging more than $10 million.

Calaveras County is the most famous as the setting of a Mark Twain short story in which a celebrated frog loses a jumping competition because he was forced to eat shotgun lead. Last month, the county forced its legal marijuana growers to eat a steaming plate of something a lotors.

The Calaveras County Board of Supervisors voted on Jan. 10 to ban the commercial cultivation of marijuana within its borders. That’s not unusual. California counties and municipalities can set whatever rules they want under the state’s new cannabis laws.

What’s unusual, though, is that just 18 months earlier, this same board of trustees had put out the welcome mat for commercial growers — and collected more than $10 million in taxes and license fees that they’ve announced they have no intention of repaying.

That means the 200 legal and licensed growers in this province have got their hands on the bag (as have 700 other applicants in the pipeline who had already paid their fees). And the decision immediately made hundreds of farm workers out of work.

“It’s heartbreaking. Hundreds and hundreds of jobs are now being lost and millions of tax dollars are being lost,” said Michael Ray, CEO of cannabis producer Bloom Farms, which has a major crop in Calaveras County. “There are people out there who trusted that job, and now they don’t have that job.”

The cannabis ban was pronounced at the end of a raucous board meeting that lasted hours, where supervisors watched it come out of the room under a hail of obscenity, and where one public commentator punched another during the deliberations. (No charges have been filed.) But the controversy over the marijuana growing ban, which will take effect in just 30 minutes days, Calaveras County has bitterly divided.

“There’s a big community of supporters there, and a lot of non-supporters,” Ray . said SF Evergreen. “I don’t think it’s over yet. It will continue to be fought.”

Legal marijuana is a hugely divisive issue in this rural county 200 miles east of San Francisco. Like many California regions with vast acres of farmland, the population is quite conservative, and in the 2016 election, Trump defeated Clinton by a margin of 57-34. But legal marijuana is growing as Bloom Farms is the province’s largest industry, according to a 2016 University of Pacific study, which generated more than $250 million in revenue for hardware stores, supermarkets and the overall economy.

Bloom Farms is not related to the San Francisco pharmacy Bloom Room (although Bloom Room has worn his products). The Calaveras farm has been owned by Ray’s family since 1973 – when it was founded as a hippie commune – and Ray first planted marijuana there in 2010, when it became legal to grow, but only for sale to pharmacies.

A few years later, Calaveras County passed an emergency ordinance allowing large commercial farms to grow and sell recreational marijuana. And he did so under the worst of circumstances.

“It was September 11, 2015,” Ray says. “I remember that day very well.”

That year’s Butte Fires set fire to more than 70,000 acres in the region, including Bloom Farms. Calaveras County was devastated both physically and financially, and county officials saw large commercial marijuana cultivation as a quick and effective path to economic recovery.

“Unlocking cannabis in a taxed and regulated way was their way of easing the sting of the fire’s destruction,” Ray says.

It worked. Legally produced marijuana more than 2,600 jobs and nearly $150 million in labor income in Calaveras County during its first year of commercial pot growing. But then in November 2016, two pro-marijuana county wardens were voted out of office and replaced with prohibition wardens.

“There was a change in the composition of the Board of Trustees, and that sentiment changed,” Ray . says SF Evergreen. The new majority of the anti-marijuana council pulled the rug from under the legal cannabis plantations, rendering millions of dollars of investment completely useless.

These farms are not the kind of venture capital billionaires back.

“Calaveras County is made up of family farmers. This wasn’t big business,” Ray says.

The county has not announced plans to reimburse growers tens of thousands of dollars each farm had to pay in licensing and permit fees, a total that Ray describes as “everything from water board approvals, code applications, environmental impact, many things. ”

So how does a successful marijuana farmer suddenly eliminate a multi-acre breeding operation when it was just immediately declared illegal?

“Scissors,” Ray says, making a cutting motion with his arms.

Calaveras’ marijuana growers won’t be cut down so easily. They are working on a ballot initiative to overturn the regulators’ decision, they are trying to recall the regulators who rejected their marijuana farms, and they have promised many lawsuits.

But the story of Calaveras County’s marijuana growers shows how delicate California’s new legal marijuana laws are. It only takes one city decision by the board of trustees to let years of work and millions of dollars invested go up in smoke. And the province known forr his celebrated frog just showed that it’s not easy to go green.

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