SacTown Shakedown: How a 63 Year Old Chinese Immigrant is Looking to Expose Cannabis Corruption
Anytime you create a new law, you create new outlaws and perhaps the best example of that idiom is what we have seen unfold with Proposition 64, the voter initiative that created the taxed and regulated adult-use cannabis market in California.
Let’s face it, the only reason that the people in power ever allowed such a law to come to fruition is because of the promises of massive tax revenues for both local municipalities and the state itself. The Bureau of Cannabis Control, the agency created to oversee this new market, was staffed by stiffs who had no roots in the cannabis culture and their naiveté about just how crucial that culture is to the target consumer is spelled out in the utter failure of the legal market now three full years after voters approved it.
Originally, the suits in Sacramento envisioned a $1 Billion windfall in the first year of adult-use sales. In reality, the state will be lucky if it hits $300 Million this year, and they’re praying to reach $500 Million in 2020. Meanwhile, it is estimated that the “traditional” or unregulated street market is raking in upwards of $8 BILLION each year, untaxed of course. This has local and state lawmakers miffed as the plant that they vilified for so many years has, in their eyes, failed to bail them out of decades of mismanagement.
As budgets get slashed year after year, elected officials are feeling the heat from their constituents making demands that their cobwebbed coffers cannot meet. So when taxing legal weed fails to make ends meet, fuck it, they’ve decided to start taxing illegal weed as well.
Recently, a story surfaced in the state capital of a 63-year-old Chinese immigrant named Zuhu Wang. A San Francisco bus driver by trade, Wang could not afford to realize his dream of homeownership in the city and instead purchased a home in the suburbs of Sacramento in 2017. His plan was to eventually retire and occupy the home in Sactown, but in the meantime he made it available for rent.
One day the house was raided and law enforcement officers discovered that Wang’s tenants had been growing over 270 cannabis plants – well over the legal limits under Prop 64. Wang pled ignorance and the city agreed, pressing no criminal charges on him. Instead, they sent him a bill for $137,000, or $500 per plant, the so-called estimated street value (mids).
Wang was shocked, confused, and scared as a failure to pay came with the threat of a lien against the property which could result in seizure of his life savings and his American Dream by the government.
His tenants? They got a misdemeanor and no fines.
Wang’s case is, unfortunately, not that rare as the city of Sacramento has issued over $94 MILLION is such fines just since August of 2017. By contrast, the city has only brought in about $17 Million in legal cannabis tax revenues in that same timeframe. So far, they have successfully shaken down about $5.5 million in fines but dozens of landlords are fighting back and refusing to pay until they’ve had their voices heard.
FOLLOW THE MONEY
August 2017 was a turning point in Sacramento cannabis affairs as that is when the city adopted an ordinance in the wake of Prop 64’s passage that would fundamentally change how homegrown cannabis would be treated within that jurisdiction. Under Prop 215, Califiornia’s highly successful and long-running medical marijuana era, the city had allowed residents to utilize up to 400 square feet of living space for indoor cannabis cultivation.
That is not a huge amount of room, but in August 2017 they rewrote the ordinance to comply with Prop 64’s judgement that there only be a maximum of 6 plants per residence. This drastically reduced the amount of weed that sovereign citizens could legally grow for themselves.
The reasoning behind the plant count limit is simple – every bud that you grow for yourself is a bud that the state will not squeeze tax money out of. Can’t have that now, can we??
In Sacramento, they don’t even bother to hide that motivation.
By April of 2018, the city had issued $12.8 Million in fines against property owners. At a city council meeting that very month, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg pressed that the collection of those fines should be a “high priority” because, he blurted, “… that’s twelve-point-eight million bucks, and … we’re going to have a budget this year that is going to be lean.”
Disgusting but not surprising especially now with the hindsight of knowing that the city would issue another $80 Million+ in additional fines in the months following that mafia-esque admission.
Wang has retained an attorney and they filed a lawsuit against the city in Sacramento County court last week. They argue that the city’s fines are unconstitutional as well as discriminatory against Asian-Americans. Wang is demanding the return of all funds collected through the administrative penalties not only to him, but to all homeowners affected so far by this blatant cashgrab by the city.
When they get their day in court, the case will essentially come down to the constitutionality of the amended ordinance instituted back in the fall of 2017. In part, it prohibits anyone from owning or renting a property where cannabis is “knowingly or unknowingly” being grown. Yep, even if you can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you employed best practices as a landlord and still were totally unaware of the tenant’s lawbreaking, you can be held more liable than the so-called criminals to the point where you could even lose the house.
In Wang’s case, his appeal initially led to a massive reduction in the fine, from $137,000 down to $35,000. Talk about some wiggle room but even that would take him nearly a decade to replenish by way of his frugal savings plan. But, he paid it, because he felt he had to. The city mistakenly slapped a $35k lien on his home anyway, an error that would take weeks to resolve and surely impacted his overall credit scores.
Now he wants his money back, he wants everyone else to get their money back, and he wants the state to find a more honest way to balance their budget as he has been able to do on a bus driver’s salary for decades.