Special report: How does your garden grow? | TheUnion.com

Special report: How does your garden grow?

In the 14 years since medical marijuana was legalized in California, an uneasy detente has developed between law enforcement and growers.

Authorities say many growers use medical marijuana laws as a shield to grow – and sell – more than they’re legally allowed.

But a fair number of backyard growers make the effort to be in legal compliance.

“We have people call and ask us to take a look at their garden,” said Nevada County Sheriff’s Sgt. Bill Smethers, who has been a part of the inter-agency Narcotics Task Force since 2001.

The task force also fields requests for compliance checks from people concerned about neighboring pot gardens that produce a distinctive smell or grow near places where children congregate, he said.

“I had two teams of four guys doing checks on 25 locations,” Smethers said. “If someone’s got six plants, it’s likely they have a scrip” – a doctor’s recommendation to use marijuana for its medicinal effects.

Nevada City attorney Stephen Munkelt has built a reputation defending growers from cultivation charges – and consulting with growers who want to comply with the law.

“I talk about what the rules are, how they’re applied. Under federal law, it’s illegal,” Munkelt said. “You cannot eliminate the possibility the federal government will come after you.”

California’s medical marijuana law provides a defense for the sale and possession for sale of marijuana, Munkelt said.

“What it doesn’t authorize is making a profit,” he explained.

Nor does it define profit.

“Law enforcement … (views) the law as not allowing sales activity, even to a collective. If you want to minimize risk, then you should plan on not actually making any sales,” Munkelt said.

But, “medical marijuana (law) pretty clearly authorizes people who cultivate medical marijuana to sell to a dispensary,” Munkelt added. “It generates a problem. You have received money: What is profit, and what is reasonable compensation for services and reimbursement for expenses? It’s not a cheap crop to grow.”

The Sheriff’s Office has turned to sophisticated investigations of large-scale commercial plantations, involving state and federal agencies and financial audits.

In September 2009, almost 200 law enforcement officers and agents raided nine locations on property belonging to Charles Hilkey Jr., 55. A criminal investigator from the IRS analyzed Hilkey’s financial documents, allegedly uncovering narcotic-related proceeds.

The IRS alleged Hilkey earned about $1.9 million in profits in two years.

“We’re one of the first agencies to do this,” Smethers said. Hilkey “was supposed to be self-employed as a contractor … so we started looking at the employment records.

“The question becomes, how do you own all these properties without having a job?” Smethers said. “We look at the grow, and from there, it spirals out. If it’s a good enough target, we get ahold of the IRS.”

Between January and September of this year, the Sheriff’s Office dedicated about 950 man-hours to marijuana eradication. Sheriff Keith Royal estimated the cost at about $47,500, out of the department’s annual FY2010-11 budget of $31.5 million.

That number doesn’t include crime related to pot.

“One cost that isn’t captured is that we spend an unbelievable amount of hours on crime associated with the cultivation and distribution of marijuana,” Royal said.

The county’s two homicides this year were directly related to marijuana, Royal said: The shooting of Kenneth Painter in a drug deal gone bad and the death of Timothy Daniel Fitzpatrick, allegedly involved in a home invasion and marijuana robbery.

“That doesn’t include the (other) home invasion robberies, theft crimes and environmental issues,” Royal added.

The task force this year has eradicated 75,000 plants and confiscated 400 pounds of processed marijuana in 26 cases, he said.

Several grants help fund the task force.

The Domestic Cannabis Eradication and Suppression Program provides $30,000 a year, which pays for flight time, overtime and some equipment, Smethers said. They also receive $308,000 a year from an Anti-Drug Abuse grant, which covers all illegal drugs.

The U.S. Forest Service adds about $5,000 to $10,000 a year, and the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting assists with large-scale operations.

To contact Staff Writer Liz Kellar, e-mail lkellar@theunion.com or call (530) 477-4229.

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