A grand compromise
Activists from both sides unite to draft new county medi-pot ordinance
Last August, after District Attorney Mike Ramsey declared the Butte County Board of Supervisors’ second attempt at a medical-marijuana ordinance unconstitutional, a novel idea was proposed: form an ad-hoc committee with representatives from both sides to draft a middle-ground mandate.
With passions running high, it seemed likely such an adversarial body—composed of four activists from each side with several county officials in the wings—could do little more than sink further into the bureaucratic muck the board has been mired in for the last two years. But after a handful of meetings held each Friday for two months, the committee is putting the final touches on an ordinance that will be presented at the Feb. 12 supervisors’ meeting.
“It’s been interesting,” said Deputy Chief Administrative Officer Sang Kim, who was present at each meeting and said the draft should be available to the public early next week. “There have been disagreements and people with very different perspectives, but they all worked really hard to come to an agreement.
“I believe when the final draft is put together it can truly be called a compromise, because there are aspects of this ordinance that each person dislikes,” Kim continued. “But as a whole they can all live with it and all feel comfortable about recommending it to the board. It really has been a collaborative effort.”
Other county representatives present at the meetings, which were organized by Chief Administrative Officer Paul Hahn and facilitated by Compliance Officer Marion Reeves, included Sheriff Jerry Smith and Tim Snellings, director of the Department of Development Services.
Ramsey and County Counsel Bruce Alpert were also present, and Kim said he is confident the new ordinance, if approved, will hold water legally: “It complies with everything we can and can’t do in the state,” he said. “Of course, the federal government still recognizes marijuana as a controlled substance, but the ordinance specifically deals with what we can do in the framework of the state of California.”
Kim explained that, after the draft is read and recognized by the Board of Supervisors at the panel’s upcoming meeting, it must be read again at the Feb. 26 meeting. After that, the board can accept, reject or modify the recommendation, and if approved it will go into effect 30 days later.
Matt Larkins, who with Robert MacKenzie, Andrew Merkel and Mark Sweany represented the pro-growers’ side of the issue, praised the new draft, calling it “the most liberal in the state of California.” Larkins is a member or officer in several pro-pot organizations, including Citizens for Compassionate Use, Save Butte Growers and the Western Plant Science Trade Association.
“We looked at a lot of other counties’ ordinances, and ordinances that are currently in court,” Larkins said. “You can compare it with Yuba, which just passed one, which at the time was probably the most liberal … but they might be looking to amend after they see this.”
Larkins explained that the draft recognizes the difference between mature and immature (defined as non-flowering) plants and dictates the amount allowed based on property size. According to the latest draft he was citing, the smallest parcel—anything smaller than four-tenths of an acre—would allow six mature or 12 immature plants with a combined total of no more than 12, while the largest—parcels greater than 40 acres—allows for no more than 99 plants.
Part of the contention with the last attempted ordinance, adopted from Kings County and presented by Supervisor Larry Wahl, was the requirement that all marijuana cultivation be done indoors in a detached, dedicated structure. The new draft requires this only in the smallest parcels.
Larkins said other particulars separating this ordinance from those that have failed include its being complaint-driven and enforced civilly, rather than criminally. All enforcement will be carried out by compliance officers, and growers found out of compliance will be given 72 hours to fix their issues.
“If someone receives a complaint and is found to be in compliance, they can’t get another complaint,” he said. “Also, people who complain must be within 1,000 feet of the place they complain against. This is to stop the vigilante grandmas out there who just drive around looking for fences.
“Altogether, it’s just what I like to think of as a good-neighbor ordinance,” said Larkins, who admitted the meetings got very heated at times. “It stops the bitching on this side of the fence and the rubbing their noses in it on that side.”
“No one is completely happy, but I think with the circumstances in this county, this is the best we’re going to get at this time,” said Patricia Vance, who alongside Tony Reis, Scott Armstrong and Linda Ames represented those in favor of a strict ordinance.
“At least we’ll have something to work with, because some help is better than none for the Sheriff’s Office, the D.A., compliance officers and for us,” she said. “As it is, everyone has been so frustrated, people are angry and you’ve got neighbors fighting like dogs. This will at least help a lot of the problems.”
Vance has been an outspoken critic of large growing operations and the environmental damage they have wrought in her community of Yankee Hill, on the banks of Lake Oroville, for several years. She said she was one of the last holdouts in giving approval to the draft, because she wanted it to address more environmental issues.
One part of the document she likes is a one-year residency requirement for growers, stating that many of the large grows doing the worst damage are by out-of-state residents. Larkins agrees on this point.
“The people really causing the complaints are people who come in and do seasonal farming, terrace the mountains, dump all their chemicals, ditch all their trash and leave us to answer for that the rest of the year,” he said. “This will hopefully stop a lot of that.”
Larkins and Vance also spoke highly of the county’s mediator, Reeves, who was knowledgeable, unbiased and fair, they said.
Vance confirmed Larkins’ statement that the meetings sometimes got heated: “There were things said toward me that were unpleasant, and I said some things toward them that were unpleasant, but it was all civilly done, and overall everyone was very professional,” she said. “We had a tough job, but we did it.”
“I just wish Congress could work as fast as we did,” Larkins said.