As Legal Pot Looms, Debate in Calaveras County Rages On

CALAVERAS COUNTY -- The debate over whether growing pot is ultimately a benefit or a liability for communities is still playing out, perhaps nowhere more fiercely in California than Calaveras County.

The rolling hills of Calaveras County, the heart of California's gold country, are now dotted with small marijuana farms fueling what's come to be known as the California's "green rush."

They're mostly hidden, as a necessity for both security and because of the stigma still attached.

"I've had some horrible words thrown at me because I want to grow," marijuana grower Anna Stepp said.

Stepp is a retired nurse who has a five-acre grow with her Leonard Selph. They have most of their life savings invested in the operation in that chunk of land.

She isn't someone you would likely picture as an average marijuana grower, but she says that's typical in Calaveras County. Growers come in all shapes, sizes, colors and creeds.

"The one common thing we have is a belief that this plant can help us," she said.

Her operation is one of hundreds with grow permits still pending with the county.

In permit fees alone, Calaveras County pulled in $3.7 million in 2016, and collected an additional $5 million in cultivation taxes. It's a big shift for a county whose economy struggled through the Great Recession and the destructive Butte Fire.

Despite that, the county is heading toward a ban on commercial grows.

"You've got water theft, power theft, you have the fires some of them have caused," Sheriff Rick DiBasillo said.

DiBasillo says illegal, unpermitted growing is still a major problem in his county.

"It's not gonna go away, I think it's going to get worse before it gets better," he said. "Almost every day, we're out there eradicating at least one to two sites."

In August, his five-person marijuana team raided 23 illegal grows. He said the county is aware of at least 600 others and estimates that may be only half the true number.

"It's not a good thing. It absolutely isn't," DiBasillo said. "I think it's gonna deter a lot of people coming into the county."

Then there are those like Bill McManus, the face of the resistance to marijuana.

"What we're trying to do is get cultivation out of Calaveras County," McManus, the chairman of the Coalition of End Cultivation, told FOX40.

McManus realizes he's fighting a tidal wave of support for recreational marijuana, but he hopes the county's board of supervisors takes his side.

"The complaints we get, those are from people who live this every day," McManus said. "You can go out now and smell the marijuana in the country, they've been assaulted, accosted, held at gunpoint. They've been shot at."

But Growers like Stepp who have invested heavily in the Green Rush hope the county won't backtrack before her permit is approved.

"It's already known as a growing county so how can you change it now?" she said. "It's inevitable."