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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Tomorrow, Mendocino County in northern California is expected to end an unusual program. It put the growing of marijuana under the supervision of the local sheriff. And it was the first effort of its kind in the nation. In the eyes of many locals, the program proved a success.

But as Michael Montgomery reports, federal prosecutors took a different view.

MICHAEL MONTGOMERY, BYLINE: Call it weed detente. For years, Mendocino County, like other places in Northern California, struggled to contain an explosion in pot growing, especially since voters approved the use of medical marijuana. So, two years ago, officials decided to try something completely new. Legalize medical marijuana production under strict conditions.

And they gave the job to a barrel-chested sheriff's sergeant named Randy Johnson.

RANDY JOHNSON: Prior to July when this program started, what I knew about marijuana was chop it down and haul it to the evidence locker.

MONTGOMERY: That's Johnson speaking at a local library last year. It was one of dozens of meetings with growers aimed at coaxing them out of the shadows. Johnson tells the group they're allowed to cultivate enough medical marijuana to support a real business, but only if they follow environmental rules, submit to inspections by the cops and pay hefty fees.

JOHNSON: I haven't had a single complaint on any of your gardens and I thank you for that.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

MONTGOMERY: The program has earned the sheriff's department more than half a million dollars and enlisted nearly 100 growers. One of them is George Unsworth. On a recent day, Unsworth walked down a narrow trail on his property, which is situated on a rugged mountain in a remote part of the county.

Unsworth says, for decades, he grew marijuana guerilla-style. Then he joined the county's cultivation program.

GEORGE UNSWORTH: Right now, we're fallow.

MONTGOMERY: At a large garden strewn with brown weeds, Unsworth pulls out his smartphone. He flicks to an image showing him standing at the same spot last year with a man in uniform.

UNSWORTH: See, that's where he is right there and you see the plants behind it, right here.

MONTGOMERY: Oh, so that's you and a sheriff's deputy standing here...

UNSWORTH: Right.

MONTGOMERY: ...on your land where...

UNSWORTH: Right here.

MONTGOMERY: And there's marijuana plants right behind you?

UNSWORTH: Yeah. You see the plants behind?

MONTGOMERY: And you're both smiling.

UNSWORTH: Shaking the deputy sheriff's hand and looking over this incredible wilderness and not being on the ground, my feet - face in the dirt, handcuffs and getting ready to go to jail. I cannot describe the joy of feeling that we were finally part of the county, not the outcasts.

MONTGOMERY: After California voters legalized medical marijuana use 16 years ago, the state never determined how pot should be produced, leaving such regulations to local authorities. So far, only Mendocino has taken on the challenge.

UNSWORTH: Here we go.

MONTGOMERY: Unsworth unfurls a large banner stenciled with his county permit number. He uses it to notify aerial patrols that this is a legal farm. He said, last season, it worked.

UNSWORTH: And so, when the helicopters are flying over us, we could just wave.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MONTGOMERY: But in October, federal prosecutors went on the offensive against California's marijuana industry, closing dozens of storefront dispensaries and seizing properties.

MELINDA HAAG: The law has been hijacked by prosecutors who are motivated, not by compassion, but by money.

MONTGOMERY: That's the U.S. attorney for Northern California, Melinda Haag. She also warned cities and counties that marijuana licensing schemes were against federal law. Soon after, heavily armed DEA agents raided a farm in Mendocino owned by one of the county's legal growers.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

MONTGOMERY: The crackdown sparked protests in San Francisco during a visit by President Obama. The U.S. Attorney's Office and DEA declined to comment. Former federal prosecutor Joe Russoniello says allowing sick people to use medical marijuana is one thing, but it's quite another for a county like Mendocino to issue permits to marijuana growers and allow them to sell their product around the state.

JOSEPH RUSSONIELLO: As soon as you start crossing the county lines and start packaging it and sort of suggesting that your client base or your patients or your members, really, are all over the state, you're basically in a commercial enterprise for profit and in violation of state law, as well as federal law.

MONTGOMERY: But Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman says the feds were meddling in county affairs.

SHERIFF TOM ALLMAN: It made me a little bit distrustful. I'm hoping that this wasn't intentional saber rattling.

MONTGOMERY: Last month, federal prosecutors gave Mendocino an ultimatum. End the program or face costly litigation and possible criminal action. The issue finally came to a head at a board of supervisors' meeting. In a packed conference room, dozens of anxious growers spoke out against the feds and in support of the regulations, including George Unsworth.

UNSWORTH: I voluntarily would do anything to keep the program going. And I think I speak for most of the other people that were in my position that would run into the woods when the helicopters came flying, and I thank you all.

MONTGOMERY: But support wasn't universal. Dispensary owner Mike Johnson urged the county to abolish the program.

MIKE JOHNSON: This ordinance has subjected the entire medical cannabis community of Mendocino County and the state of California to intense federal scrutiny, which we don't want or need. To me, it wasn't worth the trouble it caused.

MONTGOMERY: In the end, officials concluded they couldn't afford a legal fight with the feds and agreed to gut the regulations. A final vote is expected tomorrow. All this left county supervisor John McCowen exasperated.

JOHN MCCOWEN: It means it's going to go back underground. It's going to become more dangerous. It's going to become more profitable for the black marketeers. I just don't see that that represents progress.

MONTGOMERY: But the fight might not be over. A group of Mendocino growers is hoping to revive the program in time for the spring planting, but as a voluntary and private effort.

For NPR News, I'm Michael Montgomery.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: That story is part of a collaboration between member station KQED and the Center for Investigative Reporting's California Watch.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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