Why is this California sheriff suddenly interested in ‘environmental crimes?’

Law enforcement takes center stage in Siskiyou County’s fight over who can, and can’t, use land and water.

Last summer, Siskiyou County’s recently appointed sheriff, Jeremiah LaRue, released a video on YouTube to explain two controversial new county groundwater laws. The drought was severe that year, he said, and the “wasteful extraction” of water for illegal cannabis cultivation was making it worse. LaRue appeared in front of a green-screen projection of iconic Mount Shasta, like a news anchor, while stock photos of cannabis plants, armed men and helicopters punctuated his talking points. The new water laws would ban the delivery of groundwater to cannabis farms, in what LaRue described as the most effective strategy to stop them from “increasing violent crime, draining our water and polluting our environment.” 


The environmentalist rhetoric and talk of water policy signaled a shift in how LaRue’s department policed the illicit cannabis industry. Increasingly responsible for the county’s land use and water, LaRue told High Country News that he needed better “tools” — criminal penalties — to deal with “environmental crimes.” 

A few months later, the County Board of Supervisors that appointed him adopted a new budget that authorized over $27 million in police protection — about $1.6 million more than the county administrator had recommended and over $4.1 million more than was spent the previous year. The budget line for marijuana suppression forfeiture — money set aside for confiscation — nearly doubled, from just over $61,000 in fiscal year 2020-2021 to nearly $119,000 for 2022. It was the largest increase in a decade. Meanwhile, the county planning department, which oversees water, building and general environmental regulations, struggled to retain its small team of code enforcement officers. 

The budget increase mirrors the county’s cannabis boom, something that’s been difficult to quantify historically as it’s moved in and out of legality. In 2019, the Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors declared a “state of emergency,” claiming that over 2,000 “cultivation sites,” both large and small, dotted the arid valley, overwhelming the sheriff’s office. In a legal affidavit in early 2022, LaRue said that the “rugged, unspoiled countryside” was “covered with unpermitted, temporary structures.” In response, the sheriff’s office is cracking down on what it sees as an ever-growing problem. Instead of implementing a permitting system to manage the uptick, like nearby counties, Siskiyou’s leaders decided to outlaw cannabis operations and enact a policy to eradicate as many grows as possible. 

Hmong American and other Southeast Asian American farmers are frequent targets of recent efforts to shut down unpermitted cannabis grows. Even those who don’t raise commercial cannabis are vulnerable to armed raids. Those who do grow commercially face hefty fines and the threat of losing their land — property some of them bought with their life savings. (See previous reporting on Shasta Vista that appeared in the November 2021 issue of this magazine.) “The county is trying to drive the Hmong out,” wrote Khue Cha, a Hmong resident, in an affidavit provided to the county. “They have no right to do that because this land belongs to us.”

LaRue said that cannabis farmers are polluting the area with trash, and that landowners who rent to them are “prostituting” their property. He wants stronger criminal punishment — not only to stop the cannabis farmers, but also the environmental problems he claims they cause. “We need to have those laws,” he told HCN in February. “There’s no other way to protect our land.”

People have grown cannabis in Siskiyou County’s hills for decades, but the industry expanded after California legalized pot in 2016. Around the same time, a predominantly Hmong American community began to farm small subdivisions in the Shasta Valley. Within a year, the county, defying decriminalization trends across the country, banned all commercial cannabis. The move changed the trajectory of county policy, which had been moving toward regulating the market, but did little to discourage farming. Over the years, monied investors have purchased large tracts of land to produce cannabis at an unregulated, industrial scale — a stark contrast to smaller cannabis farmers, according to the real estate experts and landowners, farmers, residents and researchers High Country News interviewed.

“The county is trying to drive the Hmong out. They have no right to do that because this land belongs to us.”

The boom has genuine environmental implications: It puts more demand on an already strained water supply and poses potential threats to its availability and quality. “Even without cannabis, with the current climate conditions, there is not much room for increasing irrigated land,” Laura Foglia, a hydrogeologist at the University of California, Davis and an expert in Shasta Valley’s groundwater, said. 

Given the worsening impacts of climate change, Siskiyou County’s efforts to “protect” land and “preserve” water by eradicating cannabis has gained some local support. But the current policy is not based on hard science: Little is actually known about farming practices in the area, and hydrologists say that no one knows exactly how much water is used by the cannabis farmers. 

Local farmers dispute the county’s estimates, and a recent letter from the State Water Resources Control Board said the amount of groundwater the county claims the farms are using is “unlikely” to be causing declines in the aquifer.

LaRue told HCN that he is convinced that cannabis threatens his community’s water and way of life, a sentiment with echoes of xenophobia: The cannabis farmers and workers in the area are mostly Asian. LaRue blamed the increase of criminal cannabis activity and rising violence on a “criminal component,” suggesting ties between crimes, gangs, and “Chinese nationals that are in our community,” despite a lack of evidence. And his campaign to “protect” groundwater has targeted minority farmers, labeling them as outsiders and criminals.

Now, LaRue is working with the California Environmental Protection Agency to train deputies to identify chemicals and pesticides as possible evidence of environmental crimes, while his department is coordinating with the State Water Resources Control Board to gather proof of water violations. Yet he says he’s frustrated, saying that his hands are tied by environmental laws. “Financial penalties are useless,” LaRue said during an interview in February. “It might look good on paper, but the only way these people will respond is if there is consequence.”

In early 2022, California lawmakers introduced a bill that would make unlicensed cannabis cultivation, formerly a misdemeanor, a felony punishable by up to three years in county jail. Similarly, at a local level, LaRue plans to ramp up punishment, pointing out the possibility of prosecuting landowners and farmers with conspiracy charges, a felony. 

In Siskiyou County, however, such punishment is unevenly administered. Asian Americans comprise just 2.6% of the county’s population, according to the U.S. Census, but between 2019 and 2021, they were involved in 27.4% of traffic stops, 78% of cannabis cultivation citations and nearly 82% of property liens, according to attorneys from the ACLU and the Asian Law Caucus. Many Hmong American residents describe feeling targeted by racial profiling, economic boycotts and other forms of discrimination. 

The sheriff and the county government rely on creating “hooks of fear” to justify their eradication policy, said Margiana Petersen-Rockney, a researcher from University of California, Berkeley who is studying Siskiyou County’s cannabis prohibition. “Connecting certain groups with environmental fears has a longstanding history,” said Petersen-Rockney. “It’s proven to be a very effective strategy for removing those people from their land.”     

Theo Whitcomb is an editorial intern at High Country News. Email him a [email protected] or submit a letter to the editorSee our letters to the editor policy.