Bell’s “bachelor pad” features a guest-bedroom-turned-nursery with a reflective grow-tent. There are racks of marijuana plants in the next room. This farmer, who served 21 years in the U.S. Marines and 21 years in the U.S. Postal Service, is one of many unlicensed marijuana cultivators in the unincorporated township of Anza.
Over the 24 years Bell has grown marijuana, he has been raided eight times and arrested seven. When he was arrested in May, Bell said, he suffered a torn rotator cuff. His old friend, marijuana, made the pain bearable.
In the Inland Empire, Anza, population about 3,000, is a small place with a big reputation — when it comes to weed. If you smoked it and it didn’t come from a legal source, many locals said, it might well have come from Anza. Drive into town and it seems impossible to run into someone who can’t point you to a neighbor who grows cannabis; said pointer may grow it too.
The town has the optimal microclimate for marijuana cultivation; access to water, hot, dry summers. And the sale of cannabis supplements the income of people who might otherwise live below the poverty line.
Riverside County supervisors have so far shown little inclination to support the small, thriving marijuana growers of Anza. Meanwhile, the county Sheriff’s Department has conducted frequent raids in recent years.
“Illegal marijuana cultivation is harmful to the environment and community,” said sheriff’s Sgt. Albert Martinez. “The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department has responded to crimes of homicide, theft, robbery, kidnapping, the theft of utilities, illegal chemical waste dumping (which ends up in the water table) all associated with illegal grows.”
Since Proposition 64 took effect in 2017, California residents have been allowed to grow up to six plants. The year before, Riverside County passed an ordinance allowing qualified medical cannabis patients in unincorporated townships like Anza to grow 12 plants. For households with two qualified patients, the number doubles to 24. But Anza’s zoning prevents most from growing and selling cannabis.
So there’s nothing legal about Bell’s operation.
His small cannabis grow helps supplement his income and supplies him with medicinal marijuana to treat a back injury, Bell said, and the onset of a pandemic-caused recession has made his operation all the more essential.
“I’m just a peaceful farmer. I want to give this farm to my son one day,” Bell said. “I’ve put everything I’ve got into this. We’re not trying to make a million bucks, I’m just passionate about this plant and the people involved with it.”
For dozens of small growers in Anza, where the median household income sits at $41,200, the cannabis farms are crucial, said Edison Gomez-Krauss, a founding member of the High Country Grower’s Assn., which advocates for laxer cannabis cultivation laws.
The sprawling fields in Anza are home to more greenhouses than local merchants. Small markets, gas stations and the prized Dairy Queen are among the few signs of mainstream commerce. Farming is the town’s life force, and the smell of marijuana is omnipresent.
Mondays are nervous times for Bell. The Sheriff’s Department dubs them “Marijuana Mondays” because of the frequency of raids.
And so on Mondays, Bell’s attention is focused on the security cameras monitoring the front gate. One recent Monday saw him slowly stripping away at the skeleton of his two remaining greenhouses, which he said the Sheriff’s Department deemed a code violation.
On May 13, Bell was one of 10 people busted by the Sheriff’s Department. He was startled by the sound of deputies over a loudspeaker as they charged through his gate. As he headed to the front porch, he shrank away from the guns pointed in his direction, he said. Officers zip-tied his wrists, pulling his arms back farther than they could bend, he said. He watched investigators enter his house.
Bell heard crashing. Deputies slashed through greenhouses that cost about $6,000 each, kicked down lights and confiscated 10 pounds of weed, a generator and 1,898 plants, according to the Sheriff’s Department property report. He was slapped with a code enforcement violation for his greenhouses.
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