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Cannabis farmers in a poor California town want to go legit, but the raids keep coming

Ronnie Bell’s prized possessions aren’t the collectible toys or bongs that clutter his ranch-style house. What the 65-year-old values most is his extensive indoor marijuana grow.

Bell’s “bachelor pad” features a guest-bedroom-turned-nursery with a reflective grow-tent. There are racks of marijuana plants in the next room. This farmer, who served 21 years in the U.S. Marines and 21 years in the U.S. Postal Service, is one of many unlicensed marijuana cultivators in the unincorporated township of Anza.

Over the 24 years Bell has grown marijuana, he has been raided eight times and arrested seven. When he was arrested in May, Bell said, he suffered a torn rotator cuff. His old friend, marijuana, made the pain bearable.

In the Inland Empire, Anza, population about 3,000, is a small place with a big reputation — when it comes to weed. If you smoked it and it didn’t come from a legal source, many locals said, it might well have come from Anza. Drive into town and it seems impossible to run into someone who can’t point you to a neighbor who grows cannabis; said pointer may grow it too.

The town has the optimal microclimate for marijuana cultivation; access to water, hot, dry summers. And the sale of cannabis supplements the income of people who might otherwise live below the poverty line.

Riverside County supervisors have so far shown little inclination to support the small, thriving marijuana growers of Anza. Meanwhile, the county Sheriff’s Department has conducted frequent raids in recent years.

“Illegal marijuana cultivation is harmful to the environment and community,” said sheriff’s Sgt. Albert Martinez. “The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department has responded to crimes of homicide, theft, robbery, kidnapping, the theft of utilities, illegal chemical waste dumping (which ends up in the water table) all associated with illegal grows.”

Since Proposition 64 took effect in 2017, California residents have been allowed to grow up to six plants. The year before, Riverside County passed an ordinance allowing qualified medical cannabis patients in unincorporated townships like Anza to grow 12 plants. For households with two qualified patients, the number doubles to 24. But Anza’s zoning prevents most from growing and selling cannabis.

So there’s nothing legal about Bell’s operation.

His small cannabis grow helps supplement his income and supplies him with medicinal marijuana to treat a back injury, Bell said, and the onset of a pandemic-caused recession has made his operation all the more essential.

“I’m just a peaceful farmer. I want to give this farm to my son one day,” Bell said. “I’ve put everything I’ve got into this. We’re not trying to make a million bucks, I’m just passionate about this plant and the people involved with it.”

For dozens of small growers in Anza, where the median household income sits at $41,200, the cannabis farms are crucial, said Edison Gomez-Krauss, a founding member of the High Country Grower’s Assn., which advocates for laxer cannabis cultivation laws.

The sprawling fields in Anza are home to more greenhouses than local merchants. Small markets, gas stations and the prized Dairy Queen are among the few signs of mainstream commerce. Farming is the town’s life force, and the smell of marijuana is omnipresent.

Mondays are nervous times for Bell. The Sheriff’s Department dubs them “Marijuana Mondays” because of the frequency of raids.

And so on Mondays, Bell’s attention is focused on the security cameras monitoring the front gate. One recent Monday saw him slowly stripping away at the skeleton of his two remaining greenhouses, which he said the Sheriff’s Department deemed a code violation.

On May 13, Bell was one of 10 people busted by the Sheriff’s Department. He was startled by the sound of deputies over a loudspeaker as they charged through his gate. As he headed to the front porch, he shrank away from the guns pointed in his direction, he said. Officers zip-tied his wrists, pulling his arms back farther than they could bend, he said. He watched investigators enter his house.

Bell heard crashing. Deputies slashed through greenhouses that cost about $6,000 each, kicked down lights and confiscated 10 pounds of weed, a generator and 1,898 plants, according to the Sheriff’s Department property report. He was slapped with a code enforcement violation for his greenhouses.

In total that day, authorities eradicated nearly 10,000 plants and collected 298 pounds of processed marijuana, according to Martinez.

Bell said he keeps half of the product he grows for personal medicinal use, and his son sells the other half to trusted black marketeers. Dubbed “OG Kush 371,” the plants are an homage to the road to Anza, Highway 371.

Shaken by the most recent raid, Bell grows on a smaller scale and dedicates his time to the 10-month cultivation process.

In March, he starts by planting seeds or cloning plants. After two months, his son or hired hands take the plants and move them into a greenhouse. By September or October, Bell harvests the plants and hangs them to dry for 10 days before starting the two-month trimming process.

When finished, he places the product into a nylon bag and uses a hydraulic press to create cannabis oil.

Most mornings he inspects each plant for blemishes or seeds — a sign that the plant would be unsalable — and sets the large carbon dioxide tank to 1,015 parts per million. The gas is directed through a series of tubes to a fan that blows it onto the plants for 12 hours a day. He makes sure the grow lights are set to stay on for 12 hours. He has perfected this setup to speed the growing process.

Years back, he also tended a larger indoor nursery that allowed him to harvest year-round. But now he spends more time raising baby chicks and fish.

Bell ran away from home at age 15, hitchhiking from Kansas City, Mo., to Anaheim.

“We was selling drugs and pills just to make enough to eat and stuff,” he said. “I didn’t have the best childhood. But eventually someone told us about a hippie commune up in Idyllwild, so we went.”

Just across town, fellow HGCA founding member Kendall Steinmetz, 67, contemplates putting up plywood to surround his legal outdoor grow with a note that reads: “Civil forfeiture is unconstitutional.”

He starts the day at 9 a.m. trimming last year’s harvest — a laborious process that has taken him months — while watching the morning news. He smokes the first of 10 joints and checks on his outdoor plants and fruit trees.

“We’re like any other farmer, we’re just passionate about our plants,” Steinmetz said.

Anza residents are divided on the issue of cannabis cultivation. While it has existed here for decades, legislation that has made enforcement less tough has led to tensions as the area became more attractive to prospective growers. In 2016, Take Back Anza was formed.

The group is concerned about the impacts of farming, including dips in water supply in the Santa Margarita Watershed, an increase in illegal operations and properties ruined by renters who leave after harvesting.

Take Back Anza founder Gary Worobec said men brandishing guns have occasionally blocked roads. Worobec said the group is focused on removing large, illegal grows. But small growers felt they have been targeted in the past.

In the last year, Martinez said, the Hemet sheriff’s station conducted or assisted in 31 raids, eradicating 163,704 plants and more than 41 tons of marijuana.

Martinez estimated $170 million in plants and processed marijuana were eradicated this year alone. The station will likely double 2019’s number of raids.

In their downtime, Bell and Steinmetz work with HCGA to propose alternative zoning policies to legalize small growing operations. According to a report by the Anza Valley Municipal Advisory Council, 97% of Anza residents live on rural residential or agricultural land, which prevents them from growing and selling cannabis but allows other commercial farming.

Cannabis farms in Riverside County township Anza face local opposition and run ins with the law. But they won't give up.

In rural Anza, marijuana is seen as a scourge. Could it also be a savior?

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What wine has done for Napa, marijuana could do for Anza.

That’s the hope of Kendall Steinmetz, a 14-year Anza resident who sees the potential for marijuana tourism to thrive in the rural, unincorporated, community between Temecula and Palm Springs.

But for many living in Anza, marijuana offers a bumper crop of frustration. Illegal grows are blamed for crime, pollution, and anxiety among residents who feel overwhelmed by illicit cannabis.

“The marijuana itself, the plant itself, is not the problem,” said Gary Worobec, who’s lived in Anza for 30 years. “It’s all the collateral damage that comes with it.”

High Country Growers Association President Jacob Baird, 29, left, and Edison Gomez-Krauss, who sits on the Anza Valley advisory council, are surrounded by marijuana plants at a private medical garden in Anza on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

A dilapidated greenhouse sits on a hilly landscape in Anza overlooking the scenic view of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park on Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

A crop of marijuana plants grows above a black tarp covering a fence on a roadside property in Anza on Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

White plastic hoop houses sit on a hilly landscape in Anza on Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

An aerial view of dilapidated greenhouses in the Anza area is seen Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

Sage Town Hall Association President Bill Donahue, seen Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019, said he’s concerned about illegal marijuana grows in the area. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

High Country Growers Association President Jacob Baird, 29, left, and Edison Gomez-Krauss, who sits on the Anza Valley advisory council, are surrounded by marijuana plants at a private medical garden in Anza on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

High Country Growers Association President Jacob Baird, 29, smells marijuana growing in a private medical garden in Anza on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

High Country Growers Association President Jacob Baird, 29, holds dried marijuana flowers at a private medical garden in Anza on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

A ladybug sits on a marijuana leaf at a private medical garden in Anza on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

High Country Growers Association President Jacob Baird, 29, waters marijuana plants at a private medical garden in Anza on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

High Country Growers Association President Jacob Baird, 29, and Edison Gomez-Krauss, who sits on the Anza Valley advisory council, are surrounded by marijuana plants at a private medical garden in Anza on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

Marijuana advocates say Riverside County’s fledgling rules are a costly roadblock to a responsible industry and a potential economic boost.

“They’re not letting us in. That’s the reality,” said Steinmetz, a co-founder of the local High Country Growers Association.

Almost three years after California voters legalized recreational marijuana, Anza and other unincorporated communities in Riverside County are struggling with how and where to allow cannabis commerce. Meanwhile, black-market growers aren’t waiting, despite stepped-up crackdowns by sheriff’s deputies and county code enforcement officers.

Marijuana is not new to Anza. Worobec remembers when “respected people” who lived there grew the plant “kind of under the radar … nobody bothered anybody.”

Then came legalization through California’s Prop. 64, which passed in November 2016.

“It’s kind of gone from a situation … where it was under the radar to now way, way above the radar,” Worobec said. “And it’s seriously affecting the quality of life of the residents up here.”

Allison Renck of neighboring Aguanga described the nuisances in an April letter to Riverside County Supervisor Chuck Washington, who represents Anza and Aguanga.

“I listen to the increased traffic on my dirt road as the trucks carrying fertilizer, greenhouse structures and various products travel up my street to the new illegal commercial cannabis cultivators that have cropped up in my neighborhood,” wrote Renck, who serves on the Anza Valley Municipal Advisory Council.

“ … Next they will fence the property, obtain guard dogs and increase the skunk odor in my local neighborhood … It saddens and angers me at what is happening in our community.”

Another council member, real estate agent Sharon Evans , said she stopped representing buyers in Anza because she didn’t want to sell to marijuana growers.

“I just don’t want to sell out my community to people who are here only to make a profit and take advantage of the land and the resources here,” Evans said.

Riverside County Assistant Sheriff Dennis Vrooman said illegal grows are a crime magnet, from illegal dumping and hazardous chemicals that threaten the water supply to theft of water and electricity, assaults and homicides.

Much of the marijuana is grown for illegal consumption outside of California by outsiders. For instance, those arrested in connection with illegal grows include Chinese nationals with Minnesota addresses, Vrooman said.

“These aren’t local people that (have) just small-scale, personal grow operations at their house,” he said. “These are multi-million dollar investments in property here in the Anza/Aguanga valleys that are either open grows in hillsides … or grow houses made specifically to operate marijuana grows all year long.”

Illegal grows also are an issue in Sage, an unincorporated area between Aguanga and Hemet.

“There are people walking around with military-style weapons … blocking roads, threatening people, making it unsafe for people to just ride horses,” Sage Town Hall Association President Bill Donahue said.

Worobec, who founded the anti-illegal cultivation group Take Back Anza, took journalists along Anza’s back roads in September. The smell of marijuana was pungent in the late-morning air as Worobec pointed out greenhouses dotting the hilly landscape. On one roadside property, marijuana plants jutted above a fence shrouded in opaque tarping.

Rural residential roadblock

Prop. 64 gives cities and counties the right to ban or regulate cannabis commerce within their jurisdictions. Riverside County supervisors, who have land-use authority over unincorporated areas, approved a regulatory framework in October 2018 that allowed for cannabis ventures subject to a wide range of restrictions.

“Some people assumed under Prop. 64 that anyone could grow marijuana anytime, anywhere,” Washington said. “That’s just not the case.”

County rules require marijuana businesses to have permits. Out of 119 permit applicants, 69 got the go-ahead from the Board of Supervisors in June to move forward ahead of an Oct. 30 deadline.

So far, 16 of the 69 have done so, county spokeswoman Brooke Federico said. Two of the 16 are in Anza and three are in Sage, she said.

Steinmetz and High Country Growers Association President Jacob Baird argue the county’s rules improperly ban cultivation on rural residential zoned property, which accounts for much of the land in Anza and other unincorporated areas.

Not all rural residential properties are the same, with many being large parcels with far-away neighbors who won’t be bothered by marijuana odor, Baird said. It’s also hypocritical, he said, that the county bans marijuana on rural residential land while allowing hemp – a cousin of marijuana that’s used in industrial products and doesn’t get people high – though hemp cultivation leads to the same complaints as marijuana growing.

“I’m not in this for a permit. I’m in this because it’s what’s best for the community,” Baird said. “We understand there’s a big illegal cultivation nuisance. We just believe the avenue to fix that is an inclusive, wider permitting approach.”

Because rural residential properties are so diverse, drafting rules that work “for residential areas and cultivators was tough,” said Charissa Leach, assistant director for community development in the county’s Transportation & Land Management Agency.

Supervisors have asked county staff to look at how commercial marijuana can work in rural residential zones, said Leach and Juan Perez, land management agency director.

Washington said the county’s approach “has been slow, and I think that frustrates some folks. I’m in full support of us doing it in a deliberative fashion …. We’re trying to learn from the mistakes that others have made.”

Rural residential landowners can apply to rezone their property to something that allows commercial marijuana cultivation. But Leach said it costs $12,000 to rezone without a development project – $3,500 in conjunction with a project. And it can cost $30,000 to get a conditional-use permit, Perez said.

That’s too much for many in Anza, Baird and Steinmetz said. The fact that 119 applicants sought permits “speaks to the fact that the county’s (cannabis regulations) are well designed,” Perez said.

Advocates say marijuana commerce could be a boon to Anza, where the median household income is about $19,000 lower than the rest of Riverside County, according to census data.

“Properly regulated, without unreasonable restrictions, this industry could greatly improve the quality of life for many in the region,” said Edison Gomez-Krauss, who sits on the Anza Valley advisory council and is a Democratic candidate for Anza’s state Assembly district.

Just like alcohol?

Since Sheriff Chad Bianco took office in January, the Sheriff’s Department has been more aggressive in cracking down on illegal grows in the Anza Valley, Worobec and Washington said.

Riverside County sheriff’s deputies confiscate what they said are illegally grown marijuana plants in the Anza Valley on June 5, 2019. The Sheriff’s Department blurred out the faces of two deputies in the photo. (Courtesy of Riverside County Sheriff’s Department)

On June 5, more than 700 law enforcement personnel served search warrants in Anza, Aguanga, and Sage on more than 118 illegal grows. Eight people were arrested and almost 141,000 marijuana plants valued at $189 million were seized, as were 3,037 pounds of processed marijuana, 17 rifles, and 10 handguns, a sheriff’s news release stated.

Sheriff’s social media frequently promotes the outcomes of enforcement operations with photos of deputies in tactical gear and seized marijuana and firearms.

Since June 1, county code enforcement has brought 88 cases against illegal cultivators in Anza and Aguanga, with 44 being brought into compliance, Leach said.

Related links

  • 7 things to know about marijuana commerce in unincorporated Riverside County
  • Riverside County issues first-stage approval to 69 would-be cannabis operators
  • Marijuana businesses will be allowed in unincorporated Riverside County
  • A proposed law would allow many marijuana businesses in unincorporated Riverside County
  • Violent crimes, complaints prompted blitz against illegal marijuana near Anza

Bard believes the enforcement goes too far.

“They’re using heavily armed police to raid these properties for code violations,” he said. “Either you give us $50,000 to rezone and play by the rules or we’ll take your private property at gunpoint.”

Donahue, the Sage community leader, believes marijuana is following “the exact same path as alcohol.”

“Alcohol went from Prohibition to licensing and regulation,” he said. “Now hardly anybody buys illegal alcohol. You’re going to a store and buying it. (Marijuana) will happen the same way.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to remove a photo that did not clearly describe a licensed industrial hemp facility in Anza.

In rural Anza, marijuana is seen as a scourge. Could it also be a savior? Share this: Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window) Click to share on Twitter (Opens in new window)