Story and Photographs by Angela Bacca for Skunk Magazine © 2012
“Don’t take my babies!” Daisy Bram wails. Her blood-curdling screams are countered by the Butte County Sherriff matter-of-factly reading her the list of charges being leveraged against her. The screams intensify “How is he going to eat he’s a newborn? He can’t eat formula!” she sobs as her husband Jayme Walsh tries to console her “Daisy listen to me, baby doll, I know listen to me…” The children are heard screaming as the officer concludes the list of Walsh’s charges and turns his attention back to Bram who is still screaming and sobbing “oh, and that’s another charge, child endangerment… for both of you, so that’s three each, ok?” he says casually. The screams intensify as Daisy’s three-week old baby is forcibly removed from her arms.
Daisy and Jayme, both in their early thirties, met in San Francisco in 2008 and haven’t left each other’s side since. Their dream was to live a minimalist lifestyle somewhere relatively off the grid where they would have a low carbon footprint and raise a family. In early 2011 they moved to Concow, California a remote and unincorporated part of Butte County. Daisy studied midwifery and birthed her second child, Zeus, at home with Jayme’s help. Daisy and Jayme were attentive parents, growing and preparing organic baby food and spending all of their time educating and playing with the children. They had just settled into their new life when they were raided in September 2011.
Residents of Concow grow much of their own food and trade locally for what they need; there is one small grocery store, a small one-room school, and a spattering of tiny shacks or small mountain homes. Some of its residents are so poor they live in ocean shipping containers. Occasionally those with cars will make the 45-minute trip to the nearest city, Oroville, but most enjoy a quiet bucolic life in the undeveloped natural expanse of the Sierra Nevada foothills. Almost all of them are growing small marijuana farms, well within the bounds of State law.
Three weeks before the raid and removal of Daisy and Jayme’s infant children the Butte County Interagency Narcotics Task Force (BINTF) drove up a private road, unlocked a chained gate and approached the home where Daisy and Jayme were living with their children and growing a small amount of marijuana. They asked if Jayme, who has a non-violent felony record from his youth, was growing marijuana. Jayme was fully compliant with the officers because he was growing within the bounds of the law and had all of his recommendations posted in the small garden. Little did he know that while the officers were being polite with him they were using everything he said to put together a warrant, forcibly remove his children from the home and bring Daisy and himself into custody.
Both Daisy and Jayme were charged with Cultivation of Marijuana, Possession with Intent to Sell and Child Endangerment, the child endangerment charges were dropped for both Daisy and Jayme in the preliminary hearing but refilled against Daisy, seemingly in retaliation for her outspoken opposition to the removal of her children, for passing THC through her breast milk to the children. They confiscated approximately 36 plants in various stages of growth and a small amount of dried marijuana and concentrates, which is not out of line with California law. The Child Endangerment charge was added because there was loose marijuana on the floor where the children played, the marijuana was not there until the cops searched the house and confiscated the marijuana.
At the time of arrest, the children were placed into foster care where they would live and grow for the next five months. They were subjected to a series of pediatric visits to assess if somehow their exposure to marijuana had given them a developmental or physical defect. Through a series of invasive testing and visits to specialists, doctors repeatedly concluded there was nothing wrong with either of them. Daisy, who does not believe in Western Medicine, diligently attended every examination after her release. When an adoption specialist came to one of the appointments to assess their adoptability, Daisy discovered they were planning to ask her to relinquish her parental rights in order to put them up for adoption, increasing her drive to expose what was happening to her.
As Daisy became more and more present and vocal, the police officers, child welfare workers and the DA’s office ramped up their retaliations against her. With every vindictive action they attempted to take she researched the policy they cited to justify it and found that almost none of the tactics they used against her were legal or verifiable and called them on it. She approached attorney Michael Levinsohn, a lawyer from Los Angeles (over an eight hour drive away) to represent her. Levinsohn has fought and won every case he has taken regarding marijuana cultivation and the forced removal of children from their home. He has taken her case pro bono and is acting as co-counsel with Jayme, who is representing his self. Levinsohn is confident this case has resounding impact beyond Butte County, “[Daisy] is the Mother Jones of cannabis patients,” he says.
As his own legal counsel, Jayme was given the discovery evidence the police collected when they made the arrests and took his children. Included was an audio recording of the entire raid. Jayme uploaded it to Youtube and friends distributed it through social media. It went viral and sparked coverage in local media and international coverage in marijuana media outlets. They made a website, freemybabies.org, and spent all of their time researching laws and local policies, distributing flyers and introducing themselves to everyone they met in the community. After five months they had completely wore down the system and public opinion throughout the county was overwhelmingly in their favor. The courts were forced to recognize Daisy’s legal prescription for Marinol and released the children back into their custody.
“It is like dealing with a bully on the playground,” Daisy says, “If you show them fear they will keep messing with you. I am not afraid, marijuana is not a drug and I am not a drug addict. I am a good mother and my kids are happy and well-adjusted.”
When the children returned home it was clear to Daisy and Jayme that they were severely traumatized. Six-month old Zeus had grown and developed entirely in foster care and barely recognized his parents. Toddler Thor returned shy and carried resentment at being abandoned.
Daisy and Jayme are now awaiting trial. Thor and Zeus have mostly assimilated back into life with their parents, although Thor is still afraid of white vehicles that look like the ones CPS used to transport him to and from appointments.
Although the child endangerment charges were dismissed for both of them during the preliminary hearing, Daisy now faces new child endangerment charges for passing THC through her breast milk to the children. They have become prominent activists in the community campaigning for corruption reform in the local government. Daisy is now pregnant with a third child, due in September.
BUTTE COUNTY’S CASH COW
Since the passage of Prop 215 in 1996 small Northern California counties like Butte have been reaping the profits of the gray areas presented in the discrepancy between local and federal marijuana laws, predatory asset forfeiture policy and a failing school system.
Nearly 20% of Butte’s population lives below the Federal poverty line, more than twice the state’s rate and significantly higher than the national average. The cash-strapped school system is notoriously poor and many in the area have not completed a high school education. While the entire state is facing major slashes to the budget, Butte is no exception.
Since the recession began in 2008, the Butte County Board of Supervisors have been forthcoming about their anger, particularly in their fiscal reports, at the state for cutting funding and are scrambling to find additional sources of revenue. Schools and roads in Butte County have lost their upkeep and a once surplus budget in 2008 threatens to be a $2 million deficit by the end of fiscal year 2012, a staggering number for a county population of only 200,000, many of which are not permanent residents but students at nearby Chico State University.
Butte and its surrounding counties have seemingly found the answer to their budget woes. They have manufactured a crisis—the public menace of small, private marijuana farms in remote communities—in order to apply for Federal funding to address it. The system has become so corrupted that the county governmental agencies now work together in symbiotic collusion to exploit legal, compliant marijuana growers.
“Butte County law enforcement have closed their budget gap in part through the revenue generated by the seizure of property,” says Eapen Thampy, Executive Director of Americans for Forfeiture Reform, “With this incentive structure driving the priorities of Butte County law enforcement, it is no surprise that citizens find themselves victimized by the aggressive tactics of their own public agencies.”
Butte County has the last remaining narcotics task force north of Sacramento, the Butte Interagency Narcotics Task Force (BINTF). BINTF has become such a reliable source of revenue that the police, judicial and child protective services have morphed into a parasite, feeding off is own constituency for profit. Amid tight budget woes, last year Butte County purchased a $200,000 armored vehicle complete with turret and battering rams.
According to Thampy, police or task force officers who work these types of raids are able to increase their hourly salary through hazard Pay, overtime or holiday benefits—doubling or tripling their normal hourly rate. For local law enforcement in these small counties a marijuana raid could be as good as a holiday bonus.
Last year, the state eliminated the Campaign to Eradicate Marijuana Production (CAMP), which led exploratory helicopter flights throughout the forests in the northern part of the state to scout of marijuana gardens. CAMP had been in existence since President Nixon escalated the War on Drugs in the 1970s. Butte County, however, applied for and received Federal funding for BINTF with the original mission of combating rampant methamphetamine production and use in the area. Marijuana proved to be not only more profitable, but a far easier target with the legality of medical marijuana.
Using BINTF helicopters, which fly overhead seven days a week, suspected marijuana grows are mapped out using Google Earth. BINTF, in cooperation with the County Sheriff, perform what they refer to as “compliance checks,” more commonly known in the area as “knock and talks.” They approach properties, private or otherwise, and politely gain entry from growers eager to appease them and evade raid and arrest. Often but not in every case, warrants are issued thereafter and the garden is raided and any property of value is seized and the value distributed through the seizing agencies and often the Federal Department of Justice, through a program called Equitable Sharing.
Furthermore, this particular county has found a way to even make child removal profitable during medical marijuana raids.
“Child Protective Services (CPS) – known as Children’s Services in Butte County—operates under a veil of secrecy and privilege,” states Meredith J. Cooper a journalist with the Chico News and Review. In 2010 she authored an article exposing the corruption and financial incentive in child removal in Butte County.
Cooper’s article goes further, outlining information cited from the Federal Grant’s Wire, Adoption Incentives program. For every foster child-adoption the county receives $4,000 in federal grants, a number that doubles to $8,000 if the child is then adopted after the age of 9. Children who remain in CPS custody represent a federal revenue stream for the county, so much so that Butte ranks #1 in the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform’s rate-of-removal index. Nearly 37% of impoverished children in the county are taken into protective custody in Butte County every year—more so than even the more notoriously dangerous and densely populated parts of the state like Oakland, Stockton and Los Angeles.
A LOCAL ECONOMY ON THE BRINK
While much of the county receives some sort of government aid in the form of welfare, food stamps or subsidies, small marijuana farmers are self-sufficient. “We don’t want the government’s handouts, we just want our freedom,” Daisy says.
“Oroville has 12,000 people, two high schools and four hydroponics shops,” Jayme says. There are very few middle or high-income jobs in the county; the bulk of the available employment is through fast food chains or the local Wal-Mart.
“People here aren’t rich… if they took marijuana out of Northern California the grocery stores would go out of business, hell everything would go out of business,” says Red T., a county grower.
“We pay taxes every time we buy fertilizer or soil and when we go to the grocery store. We put more money into this community than any other industry, if you take us out of the picture there is no economy here,” says Deborah Sadler, a grandmother and marijuana gardener who lives in the mountains above Oroville. Sadler’s small farm was also raided two years ago; she was convicted and did a small amount of jail time.
“Growers in Butte County live in a constant state of paranoia,” says Red T., “At the end of the day the cops are only really fucking with the people who want to be legit. The illegal growers [those growing large amounts to ship out of state or those growing for Mexican cartels] aren’t subject to the ‘knock and talk’… the only ones who are getting fucked with are the law abiding citizens.”
In May 2011 the Butte County Board of Supervisors passed Ordinance 4029, which limits the number of marijuana plants that may be grown based on the size of the property they are growing on. The move was made to clarify what the county felt were unclear laws pertaining to marijuana cultivation and distribution. Growers see it as a way to phase out the small farms in favor of the larger ones; the cultivation allowances work similar to the national tax-bracketing system, those with less land are allowed to use a smaller percentage of it for cultivation than those with larger plots.
Opponents of Ordinance 4029 circulated petitions to veto it and were able to collect more than double the amount of signatures needed to qualify it for the June ballot. Opponents however, are frustrated in the confusing naming ascribed to the measure. In the previous election cycle a “yes” vote on then-Measure A prevented child predators from living in or around schools and was very popular. In addition, a “yes” vote on Measure A upholds ordinance 4029, a “no” vote strikes it down, adding to the confusion.
Measure A will be voted on June 5, coinciding with the California Primary. Daisy and Jayme have used every opportunity they can to educate friends and strangers on the Measure and encourage them to register to vote but are worried that fear in the community may prevent many people from turning out on election day.
THC IN BREASTMILK
The basis for the child endangerment charges against Daisy now hinge on the passage of THC through breast milk to the young children. Because cannabis is a Schedule 1 substance, local officials believe it can cause birth defects or developmental problems in children who receive it through breast milk. Daisy has a prescription for Marinol, which is chemically identical to the THC found in marijuana and is seen as generally harmless to children. It is impossible to distinguish if the THC in Daisy’s system is sourced through consumption of marijuana or Marinol.
“The medical literature [on whether or not marijuana causes birth defects or damages children] is slim,” says Dale Gieringer Ph.D. and Director of California NORML, “There is absolutely no solid evidence that any baby has ever been harmed by breast-feeding from a marijuana-using mother.”
While the initial charges for child endangerment were dropped for both parents, the DA refilled child abuse charges against Daisy. Child abuse constitutes violent bodily harm to a child, well beyond the scope of THC passage through breast milk.
THE LAST STAND
Local law enforcement and governments throughout the state are staging their last stand. They know public opinion is changing nationally as more and more states acquire legislation allowing medical marijuana, so they are digging in their nails and fighting until the very end. But, until marijuana is definitively legal, municipalities like Butte County will continue to manipulate law and policy for profit. As long as victims of this rampant corruption live in fear, forfeiture seizures and child removals will only continue to proliferate.
What Butte County didn’t count on was the tenacity and will of Jayme Walsh and Daisy Bram. While they both are still facing charges, they were able to bring their children home by fighting the injustices against them. By Thanksgiving of this year they hope to have a new child and a free family to celebrate their victory with. They have already begun work laying out plans to start a community justice center to educate more people on their rights in order to prevent the judicial abuse they are suffering.
Learn more about Daisy and Jayme’s case, donate to their defense, hear the audio recording and learn how you can help at www.freemybabies.org
For more information on civil asset forfeiture visit www.forfeiturereform.com