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HighQ: Should I rent my empty property to marijuana growers?

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If you've got 30 unused acres sitting in the middle of a remote part of Northern California, what do you do with it?

You could grow food or raise cattle. Or, if someone offers to rent it out to grow weed on it, you could consider that as a possibility. That's exactly the situation that Andreina Sanve, who owns land in Lassen County, has found herself in.

"We own 30 acres in the mountains that we thought maybe one day we’d retire to. But now we’re 62 and 63 and getting old and falling apart, and there’s no way in hell I want to live on 30 acres, because I live on one that I can’t take care of now," Sanve said.

So, she reached out to me to ask whether renting it out was realistic.

The short answer is yes, she can technically rent it out or sell it. But Lassen County, similar to other counties and cities across the state, has outlawed the cultivation of marijuana. That means that a full-fledged outdoor grow operation on her property is likely illegal.

However, those laws haven't stopped people from buying property and growing marijuana in the area so far. Drive down roads in Lassen and you'll see farms with rows of cannabis plants out in the open, according to Cory Halter, a realtor there. 

Marijuana growers regularly approach him to purchase property.

"Most of the people will beat around the bush and say that they want to have a few horses on there. They want to do a crop of corn. They want to have a few cattle. They won't give you a straight answer... and so after five minutes of talking, I'll just point blank ask them if that's what they're doing, and they'll say yes. And then we'll either go look at property, or we won't," Halter said. 

The isolated, wide open, fertile terrain comes at a low price, making it an ideal spot for some growers.

Halter and other residents that I spoke with said that growers aren't always the best neighbors, oftentimes leaving behind trash and materials after they've harvested their crops. 

That's only some of the damage done, according to DeWayne Little, who's with California's Department of Fish and Wildlife. The illegal grows use illegal pesticides and herbicides that can kill mice and bears, Little said, and land is also illegally razed, causing sediment to run into rivers, killing off fish. Sometimes, people working on the operations poach deer, Little said.

This sort of thing isn't rare in Northern California. Lassen is just east of the Emerald Triangle, which is known to be covered in both legal and illegal grow operations.

Policing of these properties is difficult due to how large and remote the area is, combined with there not being a lot of law enforcement there. For instance, Little and 13 other officers are responsible for policing watershed violations from Santa Cruz to the state's northern border — essentially, half of the state. They've focused on Lassen and the surrounding counties, but he said that there's still not enough people to stop all of damage done by illegal grows.

Little said that if someone's renting out their property and environmental damage occurs, they may be legally responsible for fixing the problem.

Lassen's ban hasn't stopped illegal cultivation, and it's questionable whether it can stop all cultivation. Under Proposition 64, households are allowed to grow six plants indoors, regardless of local laws — and rules are likely different in every incorporated city and county.

The state still hasn't issued licenses for cultivation, and unless a local city or county allows it, doing so could very well be illegal.

Whether Sanve can rent her property out isn't in question. Whether she should is. The legal gray area around marijuana cultivation right now is still being cleared up.