Mendocino County District Attorney David Eyster has a message for marijuana growers who decide not to enter the legal market: Expect law enforcement to knock on your door.
“We’re in a new era,” he said. “But I think anybody that has been alive during any different period of marijuana has come to understand that if you are cheating the system or not doing it right, you’ll probably come in contact with law enforcement….”
Eyster in a Facebook post last week piggybacked on a statement made by the state’s Bureau of Medical Cannabis Regulation chief, to a Santa Rosa crowd on May 9.
“Lori Ajax, chief of California’s new Bureau of Medical Cannabis Regulation headquartered in Sacramento, says ‘the state’ (read: local prosecutors and all law enforcement agencies) must aggressively root out black market pot in order for the legitimate industry to thrive,” he wrote on May 16. “This message should set expectations for those who continue to be out there or are contemplating venturing into this new frontier. Play by the new rules or expect old-fashion criminal litigation.”
Eyster clarified in an interview that he took Ajax’s words to mean there needs to be “aggressive enforcement” against the black market for the legal market to grow and thrive.
He also stressed the distinction between legalization and decriminalization. In this case, marijuana is being decriminalized, he said, because the offenses and charges are simply being scaled back.
“There’s a lot of ways to stay away from law enforcement now, under the new laws,” he said.
He predicts a lot of people who have been growing in the black market will decide to “roll the dice” and see if they get prosecuted. And he is sure those who do so will not be able to get away with it.
ON JAIL TIME
Proposition 64, which altered sentences for marijuana crimes, retroactively eliminated the penalties for minor offenses. As a result, many Californians previously jailed on marijuana-related charges have been released after filing petitions.
However, Mendocino County was unaffected because of Eyster’s restitution program, which has kept minor offenders (like someone found with a joint) out of jail for years, Eyster said.
“If they’re in jail, it’s probably because they have a pretty long record,” he said.
Eyster’s program has already been allowing eligible suspects to plead to a misdemeanor and get probation, provided they pay the fee and agree to follow-up procedures. The alternative sentence is offered only to those who have no record, express remorse, have not been growing on public lands or violating environmental standards. Money collected from those deals goes to county law enforcement.
Eyster said that money has “gone down considerably,” after Prop. 64’s passing, but the Sheriff’s Office and police departments were told at the outset not to rely on those funds, so he does not expect them to suffer.
In addition to less money for extra expenses, law enforcement agencies are experiencing a learning curve with the new rules, Eyster said.
“I think that’s one reason there’s been a drop in various things (arrests and case submissions),” he said. “The cops have to come up to speed.”
Eyster’s office saw the change overnight. On Nov. 9, he became the first district attorney to charge someone with felony cultivation (for environmental damages), after frantically changing the case language on election night.
“We didn’t get a grace period; we had to move quickly,” he said.
Prop. 64 also knocked down felonies, like cultivation and possession for sale, to misdemeanors. Environmental violations are a part of the “secret sauce” Eyster’s office can now use to elevate a charge to a felony, as he likes to say. And so is not paying taxes.
“It’s still bad if it’s not licensed and taxed,” he said.
Eyster signaled rooting out illegal marijuana practices will be a priority in Mendocino County going forward. Inability to comply with the new rules will not be accepted as an excuse.
“For some people, I just don’t think they have decided they want to be legal,” he said. “They don’t have the wherewithal to do it; they don’t have the money to do it; they don’t have the inclination to do it. And that’s going to be a problem.”
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