Mendocino County Cannabis Bust Days Before Legalization Prompts Protests

Only days before the sale of recreational marijuana is legalized in the state, the California Highway Patrol’s bust of a truckload of cannabis from a newly licensed Mendocino County distribution collective raises new questions of what exactly the cannabis transportation laws are before retail sales became legal on New Year’s Day.

Two employees of Ukiah-based Old Kai Distribution driving a Nissan box truck were stopped and cited by the CHP about 5 p.m. Dec. 22, said Matthew Mandelker, co-founder of the organization, which has had a county distribution license since Dec. 19. They were pulled over because the truck’s side running lights were malfunctioning, but the 1,875 pounds of marijuana inside the vehicle led to an investigation and seizure of the legally grown, licensed cannabis.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Moreover, the cannabis that was seized was not from a large corporation that can afford the loss of income. It all came from family farmers that live and work and farm in the area, and the seizure represented a significant portion of their income.

This will be hurting those that the state wanted to "come in from the dark" and get licensed, and join the regulated, legal market.