A proliferation of pot

It’s the Wild West in the foothills. Can the county bring it under control?

The best way to appreciate the impact of medical-marijuana growing in Butte County is to fly over the foothills east of Chico in late summer. From the air, it looks like everybody’s got a garden. There are a lot of sick people in them thar hills, apparently.

A good number of them were on hand last Tuesday (Feb. 22) at supervisors’ chambers to speak their minds about the county’s proposed ordinance regulating such gardens—so many people that the fire marshal had to ask quite a few to leave.

By the end of the 5 1/2-hour public hearing, several things were clear.

One was that the explosion of marijuana gardens in the foothills presents many potential problems—neighborhood conflicts, environmental issues, water issues, crime—and that some regulation is essential.

It was also clear that there are wide differences of scale when it comes to marijuana growing. Many gardens are relatively small, while others are like small orchards, with 50 or more plants.

The goal of the proposed ordinance is to bring order to the cultivation arena and collect fees that cover the county’s costs of enforcing the ordinance and dealing with the inevitable problems that will develop. It’s a worthy goal, but the proposed ordinance had some glitches.

For one, it established categories based on lot-size ranges that seemed arbitrary. Less than an acre, you could have only two plants, but more than an acre, you could grow 12 plants. That’s too much discrepancy.

Setback requirements were similarly unreasonable in places. For lots in the 1-20-acre category, the required setback was 100 feet. That’s fine for 20 acres, but for a 1-acre lot it’s pretty much impossible.

Most important, the fee schedule was too hard on small growers and perhaps too easy on the larger ones. People growing for personal medical use shouldn’t have to pay as much as $1,000 to grow four or five plants. And groups growing 30 or more plants can afford higher fees by splitting the costs.

One of the results of the proliferation of marijuana gardens is that the local pot market is flooded, and the cost is coming down. This is good, because it undercuts those who grow for profit and supports those with real medical needs. As county staffers work to refine the ordinance, they should keep that in mind.