Next Monday, unless the Shasta County District Attorney’s office pulls a rabbit out of its hat, local medical marijuana cultivator and activist James Benno and his two sons will walk out of the courthouse free men, completely exonerated of all the 17 marijuana-related felonies each was charged with after a multi-agency drug task force raided their Happy Valley farm nearly four years ago.
That’s right. James Benno and sons did nothing wrong, just like they’ve been saying all along, barring any last-minute legal shenanigans the prosecution can dream up.
The raid on the Benno farm happened shortly after I arrived in Shasta County, and featured a multitude of northern California law enforcement officers, some armor-clad and armed with assault rifles.
Having covered the medical marijuana issue in California for years as a journalist, I recognized the raid for what it was: A violent government assault on a man, James Benno, who had dared to publicly question Shasta County’s interpretation of the state’s medical marijuana statute, Prop. 215, passed way back in 1996.
The rifle butt Benno alleges he was struck by during the raid was meant to instill fear in the local medical marijuana community, as was the total destruction of his 99-plant farm, the $500,000 bail charged to him and his sons, and the threatened seven-year prison sentences, for among other things, possessing a semi-automatic assault rifle of the type Sheriff Tom Bosenko openly supports ownership of—unless you have anything to do with marijuana.
Those felony weapons charges — nine for each Benno — were thrown out way before the case went to trial last December, which resulted in the acquittal of the Bennos on all but one charge, manufacturing cannabis oil using a method previously supported by court precedent and now totally legal under Prop. 64.
But that’s the thing about these so-called conservatives in rural California. They’re all about small-government, radical individualism and the rule of law, until the subject turns to cannabis. Then they’re quite willing to employ all the forces of government, from multi-agency drug task forces to backlogged zoning enforcement officials, to ensure not one person grows one single plant outdoors, despite Prop. 64, which says it’s legal to grow up to six, or Prop. 215, which has no set limit.
Case in point? Tonight, the Redding City Council is scheduled to vote on an ordinance that will completely ban the outdoor cultivation of medical and recreational marijuana within city limits, a right that’s currently permitted by city ordinance, Prop. 215, the medical marijuana initiative passed in 1996, and Prop. 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act passed in 2016.
This total ban on outdoor cultivation is nothing less than a giant “fuck you” to every Redding resident now enjoying these rights and is emblematic of the approach taken by rural cities and counties up and down the Central and Sacramento valleys, including Shasta County, where outdoor growing has been banned in unincorporated areas since the passage of Measure A in 2014.
None of these cash-strapped cities and counties have the actual personnel to enforce the bans. This is government by fear—fear of incarceration, fear of excessive fines—and truth be told, more than a few growers have skedaddled from Shasta County since Measure A passed. Those growers who’ve remained and can’t finance the move indoors continue to operate with the knowledge that the Shasta County Sheriff’s Office and Code Enforcement can swarm down on their crops and into their lives like locusts at any given moment.
That’s not to mention private citizens, be they medical marijuana patients or recreational users, who live in the middle of nowhere and wish to grow cannabis outdoors for personal use on their own property. No matter how remote the location is within the unincorporated area of the county’s 3,847 square miles, there’s always the fear that law or code enforcement may turn up on the doorstep.
Now, the city of Redding seeks to impose this same fear on some of its citizens—even as the new ordinance will permit up to 10 retail cannabis dispensaries to operate within city limits. Medium-and- large scale indoor warehouse grows will be permitted in qualified industrial zones. But no outdoor growing, private or commercial, will be permitted within the city’s 62 square miles.
For any city or county hoping to capitalize on the emerging medical and marijuana market, as Redding is claiming to do with its proposed ordinance, banning outdoor growing is a foolish mistake.
Here’s why: Growing weed indoors is inherently more energy intensive and therefore way more expensive than growing it outdoors, especially in a region such as ours, where skin-blistering sunlight that turns mere shrubs into towering trees is one of our most valuable natural resources. It also arguably causes more environmental damage. A total outdoor ban ensures any pot shop that opens up in Redding won’t be supplied by locally grown indoor weed, because cheaper supplies exist in counties that don’t have outdoor bans.
In other words, by cutting the outdoor supply out of the equation, Redding is counting on minimal income from its proposed ordinance, even as it denies access to medical marijuana patients whose only option is to grow their own, outdoors.
Keep in mind, tonight when the Redding City Council considers these regulations, which remove anyone who knows how to grow marijuana outdoors, along with the many local businesses that support them, from the local economy, it’s also voting on whether to declare a state of fiscal emergency in order to place an initiative increasing the sales tax by a half-cent on June’s primary ballot.
Sales taxes and outdoor bans are the extent of our public officials’ repertoire. The powers that be in Shasta County have a marijuana problem. The problem is they don’t like it. They don’t like it a lot.
In fact, with the exception of the City of Shasta Lake, which has embraced first medical and now recreational marijuana, to the benefit of that city’s coffers, it’s fair to say that a majority of the public officials in Shasta County hate marijuana to such an extent, they’re incapable of comprehending the world has turned, that the era of cannabis prohibition is ending.
This willful blindness has led to and continues to lead to dubious decision-making by both local public officials and law enforcement. It’s costing us dearly, both in terms of lost economic opportunity and in potential civil litigation against the county and the city, which with its relentless prosecution of the Benno family, has opened itself wide to a big fat lawsuit that’s already underway.
Next week, after James Benno and his sons are exonerated, I’ll attempt to put a price tag on this hubris. It’s not going to be pretty. Stay tuned.
Editor’s note: R.V. Scheide has been covering the Benno story since March of 2015. Click on the links below to read those stories.