A Northern California federal judge ruled this month that Siskiyou County officials cannot stop trucks delivering water to Hmong unlicensed cannabis growers, writing that the ban raises “serious questions” about their right to be free of racial discrimination.
In a decision handed down earlier this month, Chief U.S. District Judge Kimberly J. Mueller wrote that preventing the deliveries to the Mount Shasta Vista subdivision in the Big Springs area of inland Northern California also leaves the families living there without a source of water for drinking, cooking and bathing. To enforce her order, Mueller issued a temporary injunction against the county’s ban on water deliveries trucked into the community.
“Without an injunction, the plaintiffs and other members of the Shasta Vista Hmong community will likely go without water for their basic needs and will likely lose more plants and livestock,” she wrote. “Fires may burn more homes. People may be forced to leave their homes and land behind without compensation.
“The plaintiffs have also raised serious questions about their constitutional right to be free from racial discrimination,” Mueller added.
Thousands of Illicit Greenhouses
Officials estimate that there are 5,000 to 6,000 greenhouses growing unlicensed marijuana in the Big Springs area, many of them in the Shasta Vista subdivision operated by Hmong and Chinese immigrants and their families who have moved to the community over the last five years. Officials say the illicit grow sites have led to a rise in crime in the area and complaints from residents who say the cannabis cultivation operations are causing their wells to run dry.
To address the issue, Siskiyou County officials approved ordinances this spring to prohibit selling well water without a permit and to ban water trucks on roads leading to Shasta Vista. County deputies enforced the ordinances by aggressively pulling over people they believed were hauling water illegally, according to reporting by the Sacramento Bee.
Attorneys for a group of Hmong farmers filed suit in federal court in Sacramento to block the ordinances, arguing that they were racially motivated and left the families without water for their homes, gardens and livestock. They also noted that the ban left the community without water to fight wildfires, such as the Lava Fire that burned through parts of Shasta Vista in June after a nearby lightning strike.
Suit Alleges Ordinances Were Racially Motivated
Mueller wrote in her September 3 ruling that the growers have a case to allege “the ordinances are motivated by racial animus,” but acknowledged that Siskiyou County attorneys had presented a compelling case that crime was on the upswing in the area.
“Violent crime in Shasta Vista has also spiked in recent years,” she wrote. “The Sheriff’s Office has responded to reports of armed robbery, assault and murder. In just one recent week, a man was pistol-whipped and robbed; another was the target of gunshots fired by a neighbor, and six people were bound and robbed by gunmen wielding AK-47s. Few similar crimes were reported in Shasta Vista before illegal cannabis cultivation took hold.”
Mueller let stand a county ordinance that specifically banned selling water for illegal cannabis cultivation. The injunction only applies to water sales and deliveries to the community intended for needs including bathing and gardening. Mueller rejected county arguments that the prohibition on water deliveries was needed to protect residents of Shasta Vista, many of whom live in unpermitted residences and are subject to unsafe living conditions. The judge ruled that the county has other laws including zoning ordinances to address those issues.
“Shasta Vista residents might drink and bathe in unpotable water trucked into Shasta Vista from nearby agricultural wells, but the alternative is very little water or no water at all,” she wrote. “If potable water is in fact ready available, as the county claims… this order in no way prohibits officials from helping the people in Shasta Vista find and use that potable water.”
The attorneys for the lead plaintiff, Dilevon Lo, are Allison Margolin and James Raza Lawrence of Margolin & Lawrence. Raza Lawrence said that he hopes that Mueller’s injunction becomes permanent in order to avert a “humanitarian crisis” in the area.
“Now they can finally get back to living their lives like normal on their land,” he said.
A.J. Herrington is a San Diego-based freelance writer covering cannabis news, business, and culture.