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Busted Again

Forestville pot raid highlights inconsistency between law and law enforcement

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GROW AWAY Joe Munson has beaten four felony cannabis cultivation charges. He goes to court for new charges later this month.
  • GROW AWAY Joe Munson has beaten four felony cannabis cultivation charges. He goes to court for new charges later this month.

It was a very busy couple of mid-September days for Sonoma County law enforcement as they embarked on a cannabis crackdown in the waning weeks of the harvest season.

The two-day seizure operation grabbed above-the-fold territory in the Sept. 17 Press Democrat, which led with news of two raids in Santa Rosa—there were at least a half-dozen spread across the county Sept. 15–16. The storyline was familiar, with the ritual photo of plants getting chopped down by men in uniform. On Sept. 16, sheriffs told the PD they confiscated two assault rifles, two other guns and lots of cash, along with hundreds of plants, and noted that there were no medical referrals to be found at a Santa Rosa grow site.

That same morning, a different scenario at a Forestville location got no local media attention. Sonoma County sheriff's deputies had mustered at a medical-cannabis grow site. Children cowered as deputies forced suspects into a storage container for hours while an armored personnel carrier stormed the site. No weapons were found, but hundreds of plants were destroyed. As a result, up to 52 AIDS patients no longer had the medical cannabis provided to them by cultivator James Joseph Munson.

Those same officers found and confiscated dozens of up-to-date medical recommendations from the veteran Mendocino grower known as "Oaky Joey," who greeted deputies with an angry expletive that morning.

It was Munson's first arrest in Sonoma County since moving to a tract of hillside land he rents behind the Forestville Firewood Products business off Highway 116 four years ago. He says he provides his cannabis at no cost to AIDS and glaucoma patients in San Francisco and the greater North Coast—and has famously beaten the rap before.

"The police are supposed to be doing compliance checks; instead they are doing smash-and-grab," Munson fumes. "They had the SWAT team, the sheriff's deputies, the investigators. It was complete overkill, and there was no compliance check. You know, I've got a sign right on the door: I got no guns. I've never had a gun, ever. I've got little kids running around, and I'm growing pot. The only time there are criminals or guns here is when the cops show up. We don't associate with criminals; we associate with people who are sick."

The officers also detained or handcuffed everyone else on the grounds of the firewood business that morning—about a dozen people.

The raids occurred just days after legislative leaders in Sacramento agreed on a trio of medical cannabis bills that aim to end 20 years of medical-cannabis confusion across this generally well-regulated state. Gov. Brown signed it, and now there's a statewide licensing and compliance regime for medical cultivators, providers and users, effective Jan. 1, 2016.

Within this larger backdrop, the Munson bust amplifies recent comments from the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office that indicate that the department will do whatever it can to keep the lid on cannabis—even in the face of a rapidly changing legal landscape.

Asked about the Munson arrest, Sheriff's Office spokesperson Sgt. Cecile Focha told the SF Weekly in late September, "Deputies continue to enforce all laws against marijuana in the same manner as prior to the passage of Proposition 215," referring to the 1995 state law that established the right to access medical cannabis in California. Focha was unable to answer questions about the incident in time for the Bohemian's deadline.

There's a federal ban that remains in effect, and the government has backed off going after cultivators in states that have passed medical cannabis laws. But when it suits law enforcement purposes—i.e., if anyone is growing more than a suggested federal trigger of 100 plants, or violates the patient-to-plant ratio—the county has not backed off.

It's not so much "last licks" in the face of the new medical cannabis law and a broader legalization opportunity, says Munson. "I think most of the cops are just about stopping pot."

Munson's grow is on a hill where he lives with his wife and two school-age children. A few weeks after the seizure, there are still rows of plant stalks painted blue by the deputies in order to keep track of the plants they'd destroyed.

The day of the raid, Munson says, "They took five grand in cash, and they took all my [doctor's] recommendations. . . . They had my kids, they are seven and 11 years old, and they put 10 people in a sea crate on my property."

Munson is adamant that he was working within the law, murky though it may be. He was growing between 400 and 500 plants, he says, and had at least 50 up-to-date doctor recommendations. According to state law, he could have legally grown up to 1,500 plants; the police say he was growing 1,300 plants across two sites they raided that day.

"I'm supposed to be able to have 30 plants per patient. They said I had 14,000 pounds of pot. They must have weighed the trailers," Munson adds with a laugh as he points to some heavy equipment on the property.

The officers, Munson says, charged him at the scene with four crimes: felony cultivation; operating a "drug house"; selling drugs from a drug house; and cultivation for sale.

But when Munson showed up for his arraignment days later, there was only one charge, which he disputes mightily—clear-cutting—and a request for a continuance from District Attorney Jill Ravitch's office. Now he says he's not sure if the county's going to drop the whole thing before Nov. 16.

"I've been to this rodeo before," Munson says, as he likes to say—and he's tired of the rodeo.

He's been arrested numerous times and beat four felony cultivation charges brought against him in the past decade, in Mendocino County. The only other time law enforcement took an interest in his Forestville site was when a kid who was working for him got lost trying to find cell-phone service a few years ago, wound up on the Bohemian Grove lands, and got popped.

"They've known I've been here for three years," Munson says as he points to a tarp with bright-orange lettering for police helicopters to see: "50 RX'S."

Near and around the tarp are planters with new cannabis plants sprouting out of them.

"We're recovering," Munson says with an emphatic sigh.

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