Toke of the Town Interview: Mendocino Sheriff Tom Allman


Photo: Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office
Sheriff Tom Allman: “The difference between what Eric Holder did and Bush’s assistant U.S. attorney is nothing.”

​Northern California’s Mendocino County is world renowned for the quality and quantity of cannabis grown there. As part of the Emerald Triangle, along with Humboldt County, local buds including “Mendo Purps” have helped marijuana users everywhere have a happier day.

Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman has been supportive of medical cannabis growers who go by the rules. He stands as an example of a law enforcement official who engages in a respectful dialogue with the cannabis community, rather than talking down to it or dictating to it.

What would it be like to be sheriff of a county where marijuana rules the economy — a county known for growing some of the finest cannabis in the world?

Toke of the Town‘s correspondent, blogger Jack Rikess of the Haight in San Francisco, got a chance to sit down with Sheriff Allman and find out.
Their wide-ranging discussion covered the unique marijuana culture of Mendocino, the possible impact of Prop 19 cannabis legalization on the county’s pot-centered economy, and the Sheriff’s innovative zip-tie program for legal growers.
Let’s listen in as Toke‘s Rikess and Sheriff Allman have a relaxed talk.


Photo: Jack’s Blog
Toke of the Town correspondent Jack Rikess, who conducted this interview, blogs from the Haight in San Francisco.

​​Toke: What’s it like living and working in Mendocino County?
Sheriff: I’ve always been around the marijuana element. It’s really interesting, after my career started I was a resident deputy in Laytonville and I got to know lots of crooks. In a small town the same people are doing the same family, civic, Fourth of July stuff. We see each other at the hardware stores or at the banks or in restaurants. Our kids have gone to school together.
Do you remember the old Warner Brothers cartoon? The sheepdog and the wolf? All day they’re after each other’s hide, but at five o’clock, they both punch out at the time clock, and each leave carrying their lunch pail, saying, “See ya tomorrow.” That is how it is… There is a deep moral to that story.
It was 2003, the state Legislature said “Let’s pass this Bill 420.” So they said we’re going to clarify all the confusion that 215 presented. So they said “We’re going to say the state minimum in all 58 counties is eight ounces of marijuana, six mature or 12 immature plants.”
They didn’t cover the things that needed to be covered. They didn’t cover transportation. They didn’t cover how much you can have in your house. What if you had eight ounces, your wife has eight ounces, and your son has eight ounces. Oh my God, you have a pound and a half in your house.
And so all these unintended consequences come into play and it’s important that we understand that the law of the land should be the law of the land.
Let’s say in Mendocino County you have two pounds of marijuana in your car, and your doctor says “Jack can have two pounds of marijuana.” You’re not even violating the law equal to littering, because you’d be legal.
Now let’s say you’re going to visit your best friend in Lake County, 20 miles east of here. And you run a stop sign and Lakeport Police Department stops you. “Jack, we’re going to run our drug dog around your car. Oh my God, you’ve got two pounds of marijuana!”
You would be arrested, charged, tried, convicted and sentenced as a felon for something that 20 miles away in Mendocino, is legal.
Are we going to put billboards at our county lines that say “Welcome to Mendocino County; here’s our marijuana laws,” and on the other side, “Welcome to Sonoma County, here’s our marijuana laws”? Because the law of the land is NOT the law of the land.
If we expect citizens to know the law, we better be damn well ready to explain what the law is. And there’s not one government source in the state that says “Here’s 58 counties and here are what the laws are.”
So you have to go to the NORML website or you have to go to who knows what website.

Mendocino Sheriff’s Office

Toke: What about the presence of Mexican cartels and growers in Mendocino?
Sheriff: So you have Hispanic growers who have been brought up here, but for 20 years, 25 years in their own country, they’ve been around this element that every cop is crooked, every cop doesn’t know what he is doing, every cop is ill-equipped and if you point a gun at them the cop is going to run away.
So now, you’re in Northern California where my deputies are the best trained, the best equipped, they’re certainly not on the take or if they were they’d be in state prison.
That Hispanic grower with the AK has been told “If you stand and fight, the Mexican Police will run.” But my men don’t play that way. And they’re told “Even if you die, we’ll take care of your families.”

Graphic: Care2

Toke: Is there a Mendocino without marijuana? Is the economy up here hinged on cannabis?
Sheriff: I can’t disagree with that.
Toke: Marijuana is your cornerstone.
Sheriff: I don’t know if I agree with that. I love the softball argument. “If Proposition 19 passes, our economy is going to fail.” Really? I don’t think it will.
Toke: You’re saying if marijuana becomes legal because of Prop 19, Mendocino will lose business?
Sheriff: We’ve been through logging, we’ve been through fishing, we’ve been through tourism, we’re in marijuana. Do you really think we’re not smart enough that we’re going to be eating dirt and drinking out of puddles?
I think we can figure our way out of this one. I know we can.

Photo: Jamie Soja/SF Weekly
Mendocino growers Fran Harris, 52, and James Taylor Jones, 65, consider Sheriff Tom Allman a buddy. “They are involved in a lot of community events,” the Sheriff said of the couple. “James and Fran are my friends.”

Toke: Tell me about your zip tie program.
Sheriff: If growers have to go downtown and get a gallon of milk and they’re gone and the cops show up and no one is there to represent them, the cops are going to take their marijuana. But how can I figure out a way to make it work for them?
In 2007, I figured out a way to give serial numbered zip ties to anybody who wants them if they have a recommendation, and that zip tie will be a de facto prescription bottle.
If I go to your house, I open up your medicine cabinet, you’re going to have a prescription bottle in there with your name on it. That’s not against the law. If I go to your house with a search warrant right now and you have big piles of OxyContin in there and no prescription bottles, you’re going to jail.
So the zip ties represent a prescription bottle while you’re going downtown to get a gallon of milk, and it’s going to give you a little bit of peace of mind.
The deputies were very much against this. And I said, “Why?”
They said, “You’re letting people grow marijuana.” I said “No, the voters have done that. All I am trying to do, boys, is save you from what could be a two-hour investigation and turn it into a five-minute investigation. You go there, you see the zip ties, they’re not counterfeit, you say ‘Have a nice day,’ you get in your chariot of justice and drive away.”
But before this, we would have come in, “Oh, Jack, we see you’ve got some plants here; I need to see your recommendation.” You give me your recommendation. I then call your doctor to make sure the recommendation is legit. “Hello, Dr. Smith? I’m with Jack right now and he has a recommendation. Did you really give this to him? What’s his problem? Oh, a bad back?”
It’s very intrusive to them. We shouldn’t have, but we did — on a regular basis.
But now the zip tie will hopefully clarify that. 
So in 2007, that’s the reason I gave them for free, because I said “You know what, I want to find out if there are any bumps on the road with this one. Because next year I have a business plan, boys.”
So in 2008 I have to go in front of the Board of Supervisors. I have to say, “Honorable Board, it’s going to take us this amount of zip ties; to process paperwork, I recommend we sell them for $25.” And OK, that’s what they did.
We couldn’t empty our lobby. It was the hottest commodity on the market. We sold $35,000 of zip ties in the first year. This year we are going to hit $110K.
That is the cost of one deputy sheriff.

Graphic: Reality Catcher
Mendocino County, California (along with Emerald Triangle neighbor Humboldt County) is considered the cannabis cultivation capitol of the state.

Toke: What’s it like being the Sheriff of the biggest marijuana producing county in California?
Sheriff: I will say this. There has been many a sheriffs’ conference that I have gone to that the Humboldt County sheriff and I sit by ourselves, because we find ourselves…
Toke: Ostracized?
Sheriff: Well… No one has come up and said, “Hey Cheech and Chong sheriffs — you don’t smoke?”
But I remember very well when I talked about zip ties at a sheriffs’ conference and people looked at me like I had grown a third head, thinking, “Where is this guy coming from?”
Toke: What are your personal feelings about marijuana?
Sheriff: Here’s a slight comparison to how we handle the marijuana issue.
The average cop does not believe in abortion. The average cop is Republican. The average cop is Christian. The average cop is not supportive of Roe v. Wade.
But because there’s a radio dispatch saying, “One Adam-12, disturbance at the abortion clinic,” and One Adam-12 shows up and the officer says to the protester, “I’m sorry, ma’am, you can’t block access to an abortion clinic because it’s the law.” Then the protester says to the cop, “Oh you baby killers, da da da!”
IT’S THE LAW. Whether or not I like or I hate marijuana, I’ve never said nor will I ever say. It’s really my own personal business.
I enforce the law.
Toke: Thinking about the destruction of the Eel River due to pollution caused by marijuana growers and other unnatural causes, do you think legalization would solve any of those environmental problems?
Sheriff: I would welcome — this is going to sound like Attila the Hun. If we legalize marijuana on the assumption that we’re going to stop the environmental degradation, let’s strengthen the environmental degradation laws.
If we are going to legalize marijuana and say it’s going to take away the environmental violations, then let’s strengthen the laws. If you steal water, it’s no longer a misdemeanor, baby. It’s a felony.
Toke: I think a lot of growers would be behind you on that.
Sheriff: I’m all for that.
Toke: Does it matter who’s in office when it comes to the pot laws?
Sheriff: The difference between what Eric Holder did and Bush’s assistant U.S. attorney is nothing.
Bush’s Assistant U.S. Attorney General sat in that chair you’re sitting in, and we did a handshake deal that he would respect Mendocino County law.
And then when Eric Holder said the same thing, a
nd people say, “Oh, you’re brilliant!” I say “It’s the same thing!”
Editor’s note: Interviewer Jack Rikess, a former stand-up comic, writes a regular column most directly found at Jack delivers real-time coverage following the cannabis community, focusing on politics and culture. His beat includes San Francisco, the Bay Area and Mendocino-Humboldt counties. He has been quoted by the national media and is known for his unique view with thoughtful, insightful perspective.