Aiming high

Medical-marijuana advocate hopes to stop changes to county ordinance

Andrew Merkel, chairman of the board of the Western Plant Science Association, believes further restrictions on the county’s medical-marijuana ordinance will hinder patients’ access to medicine.

Andrew Merkel, chairman of the board of the Western Plant Science Association, believes further restrictions on the county’s medical-marijuana ordinance will hinder patients’ access to medicine.

PHOTO BY Howard Hardee

Andrew Merkel began using pot to treat his attention deficit disorder when he was 14 years old, and has been an advocate for medical marijuana ever since.

Now 38, the decidedly casual real-estate agent chairs the board of the Western Plant Science Association—a local medical-marijuana advocacy group—grows marijuana on his 5-acre property in Chico and, of late, has been making a push to stop the Butte County Board of Supervisors from making further changes to the county’s marijuana-cultivation ordinance.

In an interview with the CN&R during the supervisors’ meeting on Tuesday (Jan. 14), Merkel—who was on the ad-hoc committee responsible for crafting the ordinance, adopted early last year—explained that, given how quickly public attitude is changing about marijuana legalization, he would like the ordinance to remain “static until the state steps in and does something.”

The political action group Butte County Citizens Against Irresponsible Government, led by Merkel and local attorney Rob MacKenzie, filed an initiative on Jan. 9 intended to “preserve the status quo,” according to a press release from MacKenzie Land Law.

The amendments made to the ordinance in December—requiring that a marijuana garden be on a property with an “occupied legal residence” and permitted plumbing and sewage systems, along with increasing fines for violations—are “important safeguards for the cultivation ordinance,” the release said, emphasizing that the group “does not object to a reasonable regulation of medical-marijuana cultivation through a county ordinance.”

However, the group maintains that additional restrictions on growers will limit patients’ access to medicine—particularly for disabled individuals who have difficulty tending a garden of their own—thus driving them to illegal dealers.

But with constituents clamoring for tighter restrictions on marijuana cultivation, the supervisors have no intention of leaving the ordinance alone. On Tuesday, they voted unanimously to limit the size of marijuana gardens by square footage rather than number of plants.

Under the changes, the maximum garden size for a property between a half-acre and 5 acres would be 50 square feet, about enough for two large plants; for properties between 5 and 10 acres, the garden could not exceed 100 square feet, enough for four large plants; and on land exceeding 10 acres, the maximum garden size would be 150 square feet, enough for six large plants.

Those restrictions—far tighter than the county’s current 99-plant limit—come along with an amendment that would allow anyone to file a formal complaint about a marijuana garden. (The ordinance currently requires a complaining party live within 1,500 feet of the property in question, in most cases.) Before the ordinance is modified, the board will reconsider the amendments on Jan. 28 and then make a final vote on Feb. 11.

Prior to a vote, the supervisors reviewed Butte County Compliance Officer Marion Reeves’ comprehensive report on county, state and federal trends in marijuana legislation and public attitude. Reeves noted that for the first time, a majority of Californians are in favor of legalizing weed, though all of Butte’s neighboring counties are also grappling with how to regulate marijuana cultivation.

“The only thing that’s clear, when you listen to Marion’s presentation, is that nothing is clear,” said County Counsel Bruce Alpert. “If we’re waiting for help from the federal government, the state courts, or even some theme to come from our neighbors, it’s not forthcoming anytime soon.”

Meanwhile, the Butte County Sheriff’s Office presentation offered a perspective on the scale and pervasiveness of pot-growing operations in the county’s foothills. Between July 1 and Dec. 31 of last year, deputies said, aerial surveillance identified more than 3,000 grow sites, while 1,500 to 2,000 other possible sites require “further investigation.”

For Merkel, examples of such large-scale and illegal growing operations that exceed the county’s 99-plant limit are irrelevant to the issue of medical-marijuana cultivation.

“None of those [examples] were of properties with under 99 plants,” he said. “Everything they came out with was cartel or illegal. None of it was related to the ordinance. I’m trying to focus on the ordinance currently in place.”

He scoffed at the notion expressed by some speakers during the public-comment section of the meeting that marijuana users are universally unmotivated or socially disengaged.

“It hasn’t affected my life negatively, where I haven’t been able to get things done, I’m sitting on the couch, I’m a stoner,” he said, pointing to his personal successes both professionally and in raising a family. “I’m a highly motivated individual.”

Indeed, Merkel has his eyes on a high goal—Supervisor Larry Wahl’s seat, which is up for grabs this year. As the June primary election draws near, Merkel has been a vocal critic of Wahl’s stance on marijuana cultivation. (On Jan. 12, the Chico Enterprise-Record published a letter from Wahl in which he said, “I would prefer a total ban on marijuana.”)

As for the newly proposed restrictions, Merkel said he will work toward putting them up for a public vote via the filed initiative.