By PAUL GULLIXSON
Robert Whitt knew something was up when his tenant gave notice that he was moving out but didn’t want Whitt to inspect the house — at least not right away.
The tenant had lived in Whitt’s 1,600-square-foot home in southwest Santa Rosa for nearly three years and had not been a problem. “He always paid the rent, but, to be honest, it was kind of odd because he always paid with a cashier’s check,” Whitt said.
Finally, after not hearing from the tenant for a while, Whitt and his wife decided to pay a visit. “The second we walked in, it smelled like dope in the house. And we knew,” he said. “The bad thing about it is we had our kids with us.”
The house was thrashed, he said. “The carpets were destroyed. You could smell it in the walls,” he said. “There were big holes in the ceiling, and there was duct tape around the windows that they couldn’t get off.”
By all appearances, roughly half of the house was being used to grow marijuana.
When he told the tenants they would have to pay for all the repairs, things went from bad to worse. The tenant stopped communicating with him, hired an attorney and threatened to sue Whitt for violating his rights as a tenant and for causing distress to his girlfriend, who was on disability. His attorney said the man had a legal right to grow marijuana for medicinal purposes.
Not knowing what to do, Whitt called the police but discovered they wouldn’t help. They said it was a civil matter at that point.
“I was blown away by all of this. I had no rights,” he said. “This guy had turned the tide on me. Made me look the perpetrator, and nobody was helping me.”
Sounds like a nightmare. But for landlords, it’s become business as usual. Meanwhile, more people are coming to the realization that marijuana growing is no longer something that concerns remote areas of Mendocino County. It’s something that has moved into the neighborhoods. And it’s not going away.
Consider these latest developments:
Hydroponics stores are cropping up all over Sonoma County. While it’s nice to see new businesses doing well, no one should be confused that this is triggered by a sudden interest in indoor tomato plants. As Staff Writer Julie Johnson recently reported, Santa Rosa now has nine such shops, the second most in the state.
Lake County is in full retreat on pot regulations. As a result of a citizens’ petition drive that threatened a referendum, supervisors there have rescinded a marijuana ordinance that would have banned outdoor cultivation in residential neighborhoods. A separate referendum drive last year resulted in the board rescinding its ordinance regulating marijuana dispensaries as well. As was reported last week, it now appears county voters will be voting in June on a ballot measure that would allow up to 12 budding marijuana plants in residential back yards and 84 on parcels of seven acres or more. In rural areas, such growing would be protected under the county’s “right to farm” laws.
Last week a judge gave permission to a Healdsburg man to seek restitution from a bunch of thugs who, dressed as police officers, invaded his home, beat him and robbed him. What is the man seeking restitution for? Six pounds of marijuana worth an estimated $18,000. He had a medicinal marijuana card, of course.
Is everybody catching a whiff of all this?
This is not what most of us thought we would be getting when state voters approved Proposition 215 in 1996. It was sold as a “compassionate” measure to ensure cancer patients and others would be able to keep up their appetites. But it’s become a joke.
In some areas, it’s easier to get a medicinal marijuana card than a library card. One 20-something Santa Rosan recently told me that every one of his friends had one. “They laugh about how easy they are to get,” he said.
Under Sonoma County regulations, card-holding “patients” are not only allowed to have up to 3 pounds of marijuana but can grow 30 plants. But what’s being cultivated is an environment in which people are growing for more than personal use, and neighbors and landlords are having to deal with the residue — tall fences, snarling dogs, taped-up windows, home invasions, pungent backyards.
Supervisor Shirlee Zane told me how in early October she accompanied sheriff’s deputies on a raid in a residential area off Stony Point Road just outside Santa Rosa limits. There, four residences with conjoined backyards were the center of a massive growing operation. Fourteen people were taken into custody and about 100 plants were confiscated. In addition, “There were bins full of bags of marijuana,” said Zane. “There were pit bulls, video cameras, weapons” as well as knives and ammunition. “And there was also play equipment for children,” she said.
“It was a really eye-opening experience,” she said. “It made me even more convinced that we are headed in the wrong direction” with marijuana.
That’s why, when supervisors meet on Feb. 7 to vote on a new cap on medical marijuana dispensaries, she plans to push for no more than seven dispensaries as opposed to the recommended nine. It’s part of an overall tightening of rules in Sonoma County concerning the sale and cultivation of medical pot. It had become clear that the old rules weren’t keeping pace with the North Coast’s burgeoning new green business.
“There are people who absolutely benefit from medicinal marijuana for legitimate reasons,” Zane said. “But it is also fair to say that the illegal, underground, black market (cultivation) of marijuana for recreation use is really thriving — especially in a down economy.”
As for Whitt, “I never thought in my wildest dreams I would need legal representation,” he said. But he did. As part of a settlement that was negotiated, the tenants walked away while Whitt was able to keep the deposit, although it covered only a fraction of the cost of repairs.
Whitt tried to be careful after that. He next rented to an older couple with two children. “But they did the same thing,” he said. When neighbors complained, he discovered they were growing outside and in the garage.
Now, he states very clearly in person and spells out in the rental contract — and encourages other landlords to do the same — that marijuana-growing is prohibited.
“You’ve got to call it out,” Whitt said. “It’s really horrendous what is happening.”
The truth is, more people like Whitt need to call out what is happening and push back. Otherwise, it’s clear: The North Coast is going to pot.
Paul Gullixson is editorial director for The Press Democrat. Email him at email@example.com.