Updated Dec. 18: This story has been updated to include comments provided by the city of Sacramento after publication.
As local governments in California continue to battle the cannabis black market, a growing number of cities and counties are using heavy fines to deter illegal pot grows, especially in residential neighborhoods.
No corner of the state is immune to the problem of illegal cultivation. Placer County and the city of Malibu fine property owners $1,000 per plant over the state’s legal limit of six plants per residence. Last month, Stanislaus County approved a fine of up to $1,000 per plant — per day.
“We’ve been at the forefront of trying to legitimize the industry,” said Stanislaus County Supervisor Vito Chiesa. “I see this as another tool in the tool chest to gain compliance.”
The city of Sacramento was among the first local governments in California to adopt this enforcement approach after passing an ordinance in 2017. It has since issued about $94 million in fines against property owners and provided consulting services to cities and counties looking to adopt similar laws.
But Sacramento also faces dozens of legal actions from property owners, who claim the penalties are excessive and violate their constitutional rights.
A Growing Trend
CapRadio has identified at least a dozen cities and counties across California that adopted or are considering per-plant fines against property owners for illegal cannabis cultivation. These fines easily amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars per violation, and can sometimes reach into the millions.
The local ordinances vary. Redding fines property owners up to $1,000 per plant. Lake County is considering a proposal that could fine property owners up to $500 per plant.
“I’m tired of our inability to really have the hammer against the illegal grows,” said Bruno Sabatier, Lake County supervisor, during a county board meeting last month.
Sacramento County adopted perhaps the most aggressive ordinance in the state: $1,000 per plant, per day.
The city of Sacramento — which fines property owner $500 per plant — provided consulting services to Sacramento County as it developed its ordinance. It also “shared best practices” with cities including Elk Grove and Long Beach, according to city spokesperson Tim Swanson.
Chiesa says cities and counties are turning to steep fines against property owners for several reasons. He says illegal grows are “very abundant” — not just in Stanislaus, “but all over California.” He adds that the criminal code limits local law enforcement’s options.
“They’re mostly misdemeanors, unless you can add other charges,” Chiesa said. “So we were seeing these people do it over and over and over again, with very little consequence.”
He says the fines offer law enforcement an important tool to deter illegal cannabis grows, though he argues the county “is not chasing money.”
Sacramento As Cautionary Tale
The city of Sacramento wasn’t the first to impose heavy fines against property owners for illegal cannabis cultivation. Fresno County, for example, started issuing $1,000-per-plant-fines as early as 2014.
But few local governments have been as aggressive as Sacramento.
City Attorney Susana Alcala Wood says the city uses steep fines because illegal grows often promote other criminal activity, including violent crimes.
“[It’s] creating a lot of havoc in the neighborhoods,” she said in an interview with CapRadio in August. “The [City] Council adopted an ordinance that said these are the penalties, and we’re going to enforce that.”
But the city’s approach sparked a legal backlash. Since May 2018, property owners have filed over city over 50 legal actions challenging the penalties. Hundreds of others have fought the fines through the city’s appeal process. Many are landlords who claim rogue tenants illegally grew cannabis without their knowledge.
Chiesa says Stanislaus County took note of Sacramento’s legal troubles when crafting its enforcement law. The county’s ordinance gives rental property owners a chance to avoid a hefty fine if they remove the illegal cannabis and prove that a tenant operated the grow.
“When we wrote this, we looked at Sacramento’s [ordinance],” Chiesa said. “We understand the lawsuit component, and I think we built in a few more provisions” to protect innocent landlords.
Stanislaus’ ordinance mirrors protections in a state law signed by former Gov. Jerry Brown in 2018. It allows local governments to immediately impose fines for illegal cannabis cultivation, but also requires them to give responsible landlords “a reasonable period of time for the correction or remedy of the violation” if a tenant grew the marijuana.
A number of local governments, including Sacramento County, included similar provisions in their enforcement ordinances. The city of Sacramento, however, did not.
Attorney Monty Agarwal says this is a violation of state law. “Sacramento’s entire system … penalizes people, in particular unknowing landlords, because it’s kind of lucrative,” he said.
Agarwal is the attorney in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Sacramento’s enforcement program.
Sacramento city officials discussed adopting an ordinance to comport with the new state law days after Brown signed it, according to communications disclosed through a public records request.
Consuelo Hernandez, director of government affairs, emailed a description of the new law to Joe Devlin, then-director of cannabis policy and enforcement.
“Let me know if you think this is something we would want to do,” wrote Hernandez.
“Do we need to adopt a separate ordinance?” Devlin responded.
“That's how I read it,” Hernandez replied.
Hernandez, who did not respond to emailed questions about the exchange, forwarded CapRadio’s questions to city spokesperson Swanson.
He said the city does not plan to adopt a regulation allowing landlords to correct the violation and avoid a fine, similar to Stanislaus County’s ordinance.
Swanson says the city does not interpret state law to require a remedy period for landlords to abate illegal cannabis grows.
“The government code is concerned with the structural integrity of the residence converted into a grow house,” Swanson wrote in an email. “In that instance, the City’s Code Compliance Division already affords the owner with an opportunity to cure the structural integrity of the residence before administrative fines can be levied.”
Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify that the city of Sacramento says it allows landlords to fix structural problems related to cannabis grows and avoid penalties, but doesn't interpret state law to require a remedy period for landlords to abate illegal cannabis grows. The story also has been updated to indicate that city director of government affairs Consuelo Hernandez took action by forwarding our questions to a city spokesperson.
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