I shook hands with Butte County's Sheriff, Kory Honea, as I entered his office. Not much more than two minutes later, he said, "I'm going to be honest with you... I'm not at all in favor of what you want to do."
I can't blame him. If I were in his shoes, I'd be saying the same thing. Sheriff Honea has a lot on his plate, and I don't envy him a bit. Under his watch, Butte County has become one of the most attractive locations in Northern California for marijuana growers of all persuasions, including those that persuade with semi-automatic weapons. Which is not to say the criminal terraformers are winning - quite the opposite. This sheriff's team has been so effective that neighboring counties are complaining about their influx of trespassers, while blaming Butte County specifically for the new "migration".
Ag-powered Northern California saw a massive rise in illegal or "trespass" grows on public lands over the past decade and a half. Then, when Proposition 64 passed, along with many laws meant to "normalize" the availability of recreational marijuana, things got wild. Local, state, and federal agencies now all wrangle over who has jurisdiction over what, and laws that used to serve as a deterrent or a consequence for wrongful actions are continually reduced to slaps on the wrist. To make matters worse, law enforcement agencies across the country are taking it on the chin from a media that self-identifies as prosecution, judge, and jury.
So, when I showed up in the sheriff's office with the request to accompany the special agents that enter and investigate illegal grow sites, and arrest the associated violent criminals, it's no wonder he was resistant to my film treatment.
I got the impression that Sheriff Honea doesn't suffer fools for long. I'm certain that I'm not the first filmmaker to sit in his office. I was determined, however, to give him the opportunity to tell his story to my audience. So I simply asked, "What is it about the film that bothers you?" And I listened. Carefully. It wasn't complicated and as I said, you can't blame a guy for doing his job of protecting the public. And though I don't live in Butte County, to go out on a mission with his team is to put myself under his protection. It's dangerous work.
One of the most dangerous parts of entering a grow site, hosted by Mexican nationals who have relocated with the dream of making some serious money in farming land they don't own, is "carbofuran", the illegal pesticide they bring across the border with them. Once, on a trip in Nicaragua, I saw a Fer-de-Lance snake coiled up along a trail. "One bite from that snake and on a good day", according to our guide, "it's eight steps and then you die". Carbofuran-based insecticides have been outlawed for the same reason.
The same common sense that says 'keep away from the snake' says 'don't allow poisons that bleed mammals to death'. Recently, I asked an officer how long he'd have if he was exposed to carbofuran. He said, "If it was a lethal level - 20 seconds." And THAT was the first reason Sheriff Honea was not exactly ready to give me the keys to the city. His incredibly well-trained team's efforts to protect Butte County are without incident because they do monthly blood tests against a starting baseline. They run scenarios and rehearse saving each other's lives. I have a steep learning curve ahead.
The second reason, quite honestly, was to protect his guys from the likes of me. I will be bringing cameras and microphones into the mix--it's true. My brethren, "the media", has made life really hard for independent filmmakers. So as I listened, it occurred to me, he's right, Sheriff Honea. He doesn't know that my job as a story-teller is to give voice to every subject matter expert I put on camera. Especially if there are opposing views.
If he lumped me into a single class of people, "the media", I can see why he would object to my showing up ready to film when his team goes out into the field. The media that lumps all law enforcement into a single category of a corrupt, racist class of people, should not be endured either.
Here I am, several healthy weeks later, and Butte County and I have a mutual MOU in place. We will start filming in a few weeks, and though I can't say much about the exact plans at this point, I will say that I'm really proud of the process. It has required patience and some creativity. But in the end, I believe Altered State will be a better film as a result. I've begun to meet with the team and am blown away with what these people put on the line in the name of The Law. I've only scratched the surface, but what I've heard in these early conversations makes it worth the risk to walk with these gutsy men and women... and tread lightly near the snakes in the grass.