Weed war: Raids on licensed farms and dog shooting spark outrage (2023)

Video of a police raid on a Northern California cannabis farm earlier this month has set off outrage, in part because the 36-second clip shows an officer fatally shooting a grower’s dog.

That the target of the armed strike held a state cannabis license was equally upsetting for many growers in the region.

Three other cannabis farms for which a Trinity County magistrate in late April approved sheriff’s raids also were licensed by the state.

What the targeted farms allegedly lacked were Trinity County permits.

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“That is insane,” said Matthew Hawkins, upon learning from The Times that his state-licensed McAlexander Ranch had been on the raid list but for unexplained reasons was not served.

“It seems like they’re going after people with state licenses,” he said. “It’s like a bomb going off over my head.”

Trinity County’s heavily forested mountains are part of the fabled but fractured Emerald Triangle — the footing for the 1960s’ counterculture marijuana movement. Now it is also emblematic of the continued disarray from California’s push to commercialize a multibillion-dollar cannabis industry.

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Proposition 64, the 2016 measure that legalized recreational use of cannabis, created a dual licensing system that requires both state and local approval to grow commercial cannabis.

The ballot measure barely passed in Trinity County, opposed by both those who did and did not grow weed. The majority of thousands of Trinity County cannabis grows remain unlicensed, selling to illegal markets. Those seeking a license in 2021 were required to start over, when a local faction convinced a judge to overturn the county’s cannabis permitting system because it did not subject farms to environmental review.

The state Department of Cannabis Control responded with a letter reassuring growers that it would take no action against those who lost their local permits because of the ruling. The agency had no response to a request to comment on the situation in Trinity County but in the past has defended its practices of granting licenses to unpermitted growers in neighboring Mendocino County, arguing that the law requires only that license holders be in the process of obtaining local approval.

As of Thursday, the state had 345 active cultivation licenses in Trinity County, but the county had approved only 134.

“What I wish for is that we would have a consistent policy throughout the state,” said Trinity County Sheriff Tim Saxon. The dual licensing system, he said, is “placing many sheriffs in an uncomfortable situation, including myself.”

Saxon’s anti-narcotics squad led the May 1 and May 2 cannabis farm raids, borrowing officers from Siskiyou County and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Many of the search warrants acknowledged that the farms held state licenses and their owners were somewhere in the lengthy local permitting pipeline.

But the warrants also state that farm owners were warned they could not grow cannabis until they secured the local permit and there was evidence many of these farms had been growing illegally for years.

Even so, the alleged crime that brought an armed strike team to Nhia Pao Yang’s gate the morning of May 2 — unlicensed commercial cannabis — is a $500 misdemeanor.

The state license is in the name of Yang’s son, Robert Yang, who had received a state-funded grant to assist him with licensing.

The executive director of Cannabis for Conservation, the grant’s administrator, said the raid violated “an understanding” between the county and sheriff that participants “will not be enforced upon while navigating this process with us.”

“We are working to help rectify this illegal raid, and bring justice to the situation so that our other cultivators won’t undergo this horrific experience,” Jackee Riccio said in a written statement.

Video taken by a newspaper team shadowing the sheriff’s cannabis squad shows officers in body armor and with drawn guns cutting the lock to Yang’s gate as they summoned the farmer forward. Yang held his hands in the air, asking “What do you want?” as a large brown dog tethered near the gate circled between owner and approaching police. When asked if there were others in the house behind him, Yang started to turn in that direction. “Stop. Come here,” an officer commanded.

Moments later, Yang backed up again as an officer attempted to take an object from his hands. That is when his leashed dog fixated on a nearby Cal Fire agent holding his gun on the animal. As the dog lunged forward, the Cal Fire agent fired. “God, you shot my dog!” Yang screamed amid the injured animal’s loud howls. The dog, named Y2K, was pronounced dead at a veterinary clinic.

On Tuesday, upset residents berated public officials for nearly an hour at a county Board of Supervisors meeting. They questioned the presence of police in body armor with drawn firearms on farms trying to operate legally.

“My kid’s living on the coast, in town right now, so he can be safe from these armed madmen running around,” said Willow Creek grower Walter Wood. “We shouldn’t have to feel that way ... especially given the amount of hoops that we’ve gone through. It’s like thousands and thousands of hoops that we’ve jumped through.”

Another resident, Chris Williams, who logged into the board meeting via Zoom, asked, “What’s the point of having a legal program if law enforcement continuously shows up to raid a farm, ending livelihoods with bogus warrants, shoots and kills pets, traumatizes families who are just doing their job?”

Some cultivators who still lack local permits told The Times they decided to grow anyway because they had no other source of income.

“I can’t survive here in this little town. I poured my whole life into this little town,” one weeping woman told county supervisors, having waited two years for a county permit. “It’s time to plant ... how do you think we’re going to survive?”

Residents were also upset at the disparity between the official version of the raids and what they saw on video circulating on social media channels.

The sheriff’s Facebook announcement of the raid described Yang as “non-compliant” and said he “attempted to keep investigators away from him by standing near one of the aggressive dogs.” It said the dog “attempted to attack an investigator” and thus was shot in self-defense.

County supervisors took no action on the public comment, but Saxon, sitting in the meeting, came forward to defend the decision to raid “not fully compliant” farms. He said Cal Fire is conducting its own investigation of the shooting, but noted the dog appeared trained to attack. And Saxon voiced dismay that Yang’s defense lawyer released the video, part of crime scene evidence, that was now widely circulating on Instagram and Facebook.

The Kentucky newspaper that took the video, the Louisville Courier-Journal, would not grant The Times permission to show the footage.

Yang’s lawyer, Thomas Ballanco, himself a cannabis grower and distributor, contended that the sheriff’s office was wrong to take aggressive action against the farmers. “They’re not violating the state law,” he said. “They’re breaking county zoning code.”

Court-filed receipts show police seized 12 guns from Yang’s property and destroyed 2,365 pounds of processed cannabis. Yang was charged with unlawful possession of commercial cannabis, a misdemeanor.

Trinity County Dist. Atty. David Brady also filed six other charges. Five are misdemeanors: lack of dog licenses, rabies vaccinations, unreasonable tethering of an animal, allowing a dog to attack or injure someone, and resisting arrest. Yang is charged with a felony count of resisting arrest “by the use of force and violence” — his dog.

Brady did not return calls to his office.

“This was not a household pet,” Saxon told the county Board of Supervisors. Yang had stepped away from officers, the sheriff contended, “almost as if to lure the deputies and the officers in there closer to the dog.”

At a hearing Wednesday, Yang pleaded not guilty to all counts.

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