Mendocino County supervisors vow to review cannabis bust amid industry outrage
Mendocino County supervisors Tuesday vowed to look into a conflict with its cannabis business regulations that arose when law enforcement seized 1,875 pounds of marijuana from a Ukiah company licensed by the county to deliver it.
The case has prompted outrage among local cannabis industry leaders, who said Tuesday at a packed supervisors’ meeting it undermines Mendocino County’s authority to set local rules for the industry.
The Dec. 22 incident has spotlighted the potential pitfalls of California’s phased rollout of new cannabis regulations. On that day, employees for Old Kai Distribution were driving to the company’s warehouse near Ukiah when a CHP officer stopped the box truck for a mechanical issue. Although the employees showed the officer paperwork for the cannabis, including the Mendocino County license, he called for the Mendocino Major Crimes Task Force to investigate. The CHP cited the two employees for misdemeanor possession of cannabis for sale and unlawful transportation of cannabis, and task force officers seized the truck and cannabis as evidence.
Old Kai founders Matthew Mandelker and Lucas Seymour said they believed they were following all applicable laws at the time to transport medical cannabis from farms to their warehouse, and their employees had all the necessary documents including the manifest for the marijuana.
Covelo resident Monique Ramirez was among nearly a dozen people who spoke at the supervisors’ meeting, saying she was there to “express my disappointment for how our local law enforcement treated a licensed, permitted, legal business in our county.
“That product would have eventually made it to the legal marketplace, and that would have generated tax revenue for the county,” Ramirez said. “The integrity of the ordinance you guys all worked so hard on is at stake.”
California’s new regulations for medical and adult-use cannabis have taken effect at different times, with local jurisdictions allowed to establish rules before statewide laws kicked in Jan. 1.
A Mendocino County ordinance effective in November required distribution companies like Old Kai to get a business license to operate, which the company received Dec. 19, three days before the truck was seized.
“The Old Kai situation has brought up a lot of concern and a lot of anger,” Board Chairman Dan Hamburg said. “It’s not something any of us are unaware of or something we don’t think needs attention. The board realizes this is a very serious situation that needs to be addressed.”
In an emotional comment at the meeting, Mandelker said he was told the cannabis has already been destroyed despite documents showing the company was following county rules and had a local distributor license. On Christmas Day, three days after the cannabis was seized, the company’s attorney also sent a letter to multiple county departments and the CHP demanding the evidence be preserved until the case is resolved.
“I live in Regina Heights with my wife, who is a nurse practitioner at the Little Lake Health Center in Willits,” Mandelker said. “My daughter was born here. I say these things to underscore the fact that for too long this industry has been treated as if it is outside the social, civic, legal and economic fabric of this community.”
Law enforcement officials from multiple agencies have remained tight-lipped about the case. None of the agencies involved would confirm whether the cannabis had been destroyed.
The traffic stop was initiated by the CHP but also involved the Mendocino Major Crimes Task Force, a law enforcement group that operates independently with members comprised of personnel from the Mendocino County District Attorney’s Office, Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office and the Ukiah Police Department. A sergeant in charge of the unit has not responded to several phone and email messages asking for information about the case.
CHP spokeswoman Jaime Coffee referred all questions to the Mendocino County District Attorney’s Office.
She said the CHP cited the drivers, and the Mendocino Major Crimes Task Force seized the cannabis and other evidence.
Mendocino County District Attorney’s Office spokesman Mike Geniella said it has not received all reports on the incident and cannot discuss the matter.
Sheriff Tom Allman said it was a CHP-led investigation and he didn’t know enough about it yet to comment on the investigation or the task force’s role.
“I’m not going to discuss this,” Allman said. “I’ve received a lot of questions about this but until I see paperwork I’m not going to discuss this.”
Old Kai’s lawyer, Santa Rosa attorney Joe Rogoway, urged county supervisors to demonstrate support for the company because it had complied with their laws, saying the employees were cited for “unlawful transportation and possession for sale which is the exact category of activities licensed by the county of Mendocino County.”
“What is at issue here and what’s important and what I hear from operators in Mendocino is why bother? Why should I participate in the system, put myself in jeopardy, if this happened to Old Kai?” Rogoway said.
You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @jjpressdem.