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No Pot on Purvine

Sonoma's cannabis war rages in picturesque corner of West County

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'I'M THE BAD GUY’ Because he grows cannabis for his aches and pains, neighbors give Walter Collings the cold shoulder.
  • 'I'M THE BAD GUY’ Because he grows cannabis for his aches and pains, neighbors give Walter Collings the cold shoulder.

Purvine Road runs for two miles from Middle Two Rock Road to Springhill Road in West Sonoma County. Barns, cows, farmhouses and barbed wire fences dot the landscape. There are no grapevines on Purvine Road, though there are cannabis gardens.

Some residents say they'd like to grow more pot than they've grown in the past. They've applied for permits from the county, and, like many others, they've been waiting for a long time for approval.

They might have to wait a whole lot longer. Pot prohibitionists in Sonoma County, and on Purvine Road, aim to delay and upend the permitting process.

Alexa Rae Wall, chair of the Sonoma County Growers Alliance (SCGA), doesn't like what she sees and hears from the neighbors. A native of Texas and now a veteran California marijuana grower, she was recently zoned out of participating in the cannabis economy. She bought another property and is now going through the permitting process.

"It's frustrating when people reach out to me and I don't have anything positive to say about the future of cannabis in the county," Wall says.

At a recent public meeting, Wall listened to citizen complaints about cannabis. Then, she heard Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt tell the crowd, "I would not want to live next door to a grower, either."

Rabbit's district includes Petaluma and Cotati, part of Rohnert Park, as well as Penngrove, Two Rock and Bloomfield. Much of his second district is zoned Land Extensive Agriculture, which means that it has large properties appropriate for commercial cannabis operations.

Purvine Road looks peaceful and even bucolic. But it's a volatile frontier in the long-simmering culture and agriculture war that has set Sonoma County neighbor against neighbor and NIMBYs against backyard cultivators. Old bugaboos about marijuana as a dangerous drug have resurfaced as foes of weed insist it breeds crime and undermines civil order. Save Our Sonoma Neighborhoods, a leading local anti-cannabis group, was born and bred on Purvine.

"Our area is under siege," the organization's website insists. SOS has promoted "commercial cannabis exclusion zones" in the very places zoned for agriculture. SOS also calls for the county to disband its Cannabis Advisory Group, which has nearly two dozen members, claiming that the CAG is "an embarrassment to good government."

Signs declaring "No Pot on Purvine" are tacked to gates and fence posts up and down the road; the group is a spin-off from SOS.

Pot supporters say the signs are ugly. Too bad, says SOS and No Pot on Purvine, who are in communication with Preserve Rural Sonoma County, the organization formed during the recent drought to stop the spread of wine-driven event centers.

Former grape grower and winemaker, and now cannabis grower Mike Benziger worries about this looming alliance between anti-pot and anti-wine forces.

"Wine and weed are both connected to the earth and both are fighting accusations that they violate the land," Benziger said.

He's part of a new organization called the Sonona Valley Cannabis Enthusiasts (SCVE). In a press release announcing the group's formation, SVCE says it will protect small growers in the nearby Sonoma Valley, influence cannabis policy and support local charities as part of its mission.

The group will hold its first open meeting on June 14 at the Sonoma Grille in Sonoma as it sets out to "create the conditions in which Sonoma Valley cannabis is recognized for its best practices and cleanliness from artificial chemicals and additives," through partnerships with area food, wine and entertainment businesses.

Meanwhile, Ayn and James Garvisch help lead the battle against pot on Purvine. Ten years ago they moved from Alameda to Sonoma County.

"I'm against pot here because it's a violation of federal law," James Garvisch says. "And because there's only so much water to go around."

The Garvisches have not been opposed to the expansion of vineyards and wineries. Garvish defines himself and his wife as "conservative capitalists and libertarians." The family raises goats, sheep and cattle and grows vegetables as a hobby. He says he smoked pot as a teenager. "I didn't inhale," he laughs.

The "No Pot on Purvine" signs are so numerous, it seems everyone on Purvine is against pot.

Not so. Walter Collings is 82 years old, a hunter and fisherman who was born on Purvine and who raised sheep until coyotes killed most of his flock. Collings uses a marijuana salve for his aching joints. "I'm not a pothead," he says.

He has grown marijuana for years and will continue to do so no matter what his neighbors say. Many no longer talk to him.

"I'm the bad guy," he says. "Not long ago, I went down to a meeting held by the supervisor and some guys practically jumped me and wanted to know if I was going to grow pot."

Collings is defiant about his rights.

"Last year, I grew four plants and gave away all the pot. I'll put in six plants this year. I won't do seven because that's against the law. My son also grows. He gets his plants in Ukiah where they cultivate a lot of it."

Sam Magruder lives on Purvine Road a short distance from Collings. He's one neighbor who still talks to him. Magruder learned about cannabis at Humboldt State University and has worked as a licensed caregiver for a medical cannabis patient. He sees cannabis as a civil rights and a health issue.

"I think we're at a tipping point now, and at much the same place that the Prohibition against alcohol was at in the 1930s, when it was repealed," he says.

"Imagine what Sonoma County would be like now if Prohibition had continued. We would have no grapes, no wine and no craft beers. Cannabis belongs in Sonoma County along with our artisan products."

Magruder says there's a cultural divide on Purvine Road, with NIMBYs on one side and old timers on the other. He's a newcomer in a neighborhood where pot has been grown for decades and has a pending application to grow cannabis on his property.

"Old timers think if it's your land you should be able to do what you want with it," Magruder says. "But the neighborhood is being gentrified and the gentry don't like cannabis."

He has invited neighbors to tour his property, but none has taken him up.

If and when his application is approved—he applied last August—Magruder plans to grow marijuana outdoors and in a greenhouse. His weed will be fenced-in and screened with fire resistant plants. There will also be a security system linked to the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office.

The armed home invasions and the violence that have taken place around cannabis in the county, he notes, have all taken place at unlicensed grows sites.

According to Kimberlee Cordero, legal staff coordinator for the sheriff's office, two homicides in the county this year were marijuana-related while three were domestic-related. Cordero added that it was "unknown if alcohol or any other drugs were involved."

Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner Tony Linegar recognizes that "marijuana is so valuable that people are willing to kill for it."

But he doesn't point a finger at growers. "It's our collective failure, the feds and the whole country," saysLinegar. "The onus is on us."

Like Collings, Magruder is disappointed with elected officials' reactions to the nascent pot economy. "I don't see anyone in the county standing up and being a leader on cannabis."

Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane, has done more than any other county official to ban cannabis grows from property zoned agriculture-residential and rural residential. Along with the work undertaken by community groups like SOS and its subsidiary, "No Pot on Purview," Zane has gone out of her way to generate anti-pot sentiment in public comment.

In May, she spoke to the students who produce The Star, the campus newspaper at Sonoma State University. When asked about the role of the supervisors vis-à-vis cannabis, she said, "Cannabis has been, as far as I'm concerned, a real burn in the butt."

She went on to explain that, "we're seeing a lot of people who live in rural areas have their quality of life diminished."

John Kagia, a marijuana industry analyst, keeps a sharp eye on Sonoma County from his perch at New Frontier, a cannabis think-tank in Washington, D.C. What does Kagia see in the future?

"A lot of turbulence. The home invasions have not driven cultivators out of the industry, but rather forced them to become increasingly invisible and minimize their exposure. It's not what the law intended."

Andy and Helena Martin live downhill from Collings in an octagonal house built in the 1850s that they'd like to leave to the county as an historic landmark. The Martins don't cultivate cannabis, but don't have a problem with their pro-pot neighbors.

"Better that little people grow it than big corporations," Helena Martin says "Keep it local."

"No one is going to stop cannabis in California," adds Andy Martin. "I'd rather have it grown legally and in the open by people I know, rather than illegally and in the dark."

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