During a budgetary presentation to the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors on Wednesday, June 9, District Attorney David Eyster described a 10% rise in violent felonies from 2019 to 2020. 3rd District Supervisor John Haschak asked whether that rise was related to the cannabis industry, legal or illegal, and DA Eyster responded, “The violence we’re experiencing, in most cases, is related to the black market cultivation and marketing of cannabis.”
DA Eyster then recounted two specific crimes from the last year that he said were emblematic of the violence associated with the black market cannabis industry.
First, DA Eyster outlined the recent double murder that occurred on at a Willits cannabis grow. Christopher Wayne Gamble stands accused of the murder of two men, Ulises Andrade Ayala and Anwar Ayala, in a crime that Eyster referred to as “heinous.” According to a criminal complaint issued by the Mendocino County DA, Gamble also is accused of animal abuse involving hurting or killing chickens.
The second crime that DA Eyster referred to was when three out-of-area men, outfitted in tactical gear and military-style weapons, attempted to “impersonate police officers and rip off people that were bringing money up here to buy marijuana, whether it be legal or illegal.”
DA Eyster made room to say that the totality of the 10% rise cannot be attributed to the cannabis black market, but said: “a large number of that is attached to the illegal black market.”
Sheriff Matt Kendall echoed several of DA Eyster’s sentiments in a late September statement to Mendocino County residents where he said that the violence associated with the black market cannabis industry “has become too much for our county to carry. Now is the time to stop pretending the illegal marijuana trade is a good thing.”
In his statement, Sheriff Matt Kendall also described September’s robbery and kidnapping committed by the three out-of-town men outfitted with “military-grade weapons, and body armor.”
Sheriff Kendall, in this statement, also cited reports of illegal cannabis growers intimidating firefighters during last year’s August Complex fires as a cause for concern. Firefighters reported that essential water pumps were stolen and lasers were shone on them as they worked to extinguish last year’s massive fire.
Michael Katz, the executive director of the Mendocino Cannabis Alliance, said “We appreciate and share the DA’s concern for the egregious environmental and criminal activities that are transpiring in our county around unlicensed cannabis.”
Katz explained that the Mendocino Cannabis Alliance “has consistently advocated for more resources for the Sheriff’s office, PBS [Planning and Building Services], and the Cannabis Program to support their important efforts.”
Katz does not see these enforcement efforts as antagonistic towards legal cannabis cultivators. He said, “The Sheriff has repeatedly stated that the issues he is seeing with regards to dangerous, illegal behaviors are not coming from the licensed cannabis operators in the county.”
Katz added, “We don’t want those licensed operators who have been doing their best to stay compliant in an ever-changing regulatory system to be falsely demonized because of the bad actions of others who have no intention of operating compliantly.”
Addressing some of the particulars of prosecuting cannabis crimes, DA Eyster provided water theft as an example of weak laws disincentivizing his office from pursuing culprits. In the past, DA Eyster explained, “We have tried to take criminal enforcement against water theft” but “criminal penalties at the state level are so low there is literally no bang for the buck.” He suggested the county “join a lobbying effort in Sacramento” to “seek more hefty punishment for people stealing water.”
DA Eyster explained that despite efforts to transition cannabis cultivators into the legal market, “the black market is still strong and vibrant in Mendocino County.” He described reviewing five search warrants recently associated with “significant marijuana operations that were not licensed by the county or the state.” He characterized the cannabis grows as “big enough that you just don’t understand how someone can set these up and think it’d be okay.”
Speaking to how the county can bolster cannabis enforcement efforts, DA Eyster advocated for further funding of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife because “they don’t have enough people to cover all the canyons and waterways.” He also supported further funding the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office in their enforcement efforts.”