Butte County’s pot rules

Some worry pending law will push gardens into denser areas

Members of a Forest Ranch medical-marijuana collective prepare to plant this year’s garden.

Members of a Forest Ranch medical-marijuana collective prepare to plant this year’s garden.

Photo By joshua emerson smith

Pot regulation:
The Board of Supervisors is expected to vote on a county medical-marijuana ordinance during a meeting Tuesday (May 24), 10:30 a.m., at the Gridley Fairgrounds. The law will go into effect 30 days later.

It was a sunny day in Forest Ranch, perfect for some outdoor gardening, and a crew of eight men was tending to a fenced-in piece of land about a third of an acre in size. A guy in his early 20s named Jack fired up a weed whacker and carefully set to manicuring the grass between several rows of raised-bed planters.

“If I didn’t have the co-op to get my medicine, I don’t know how I’d get it. It’s really unsafe trying to get it on the street. You can get busted doing that,” he said.

There were 96 planters, each one constructed for a small female marijuana plant. If everything goes as planned, come fall the plants will have grown to four to six feet in height and yielded an average of three to four pounds of processed cannabis each.

“Some days you go up and there’s nothing [to do], everything is running on its own. Of course, you come back a couple of days later and there’s hours’ worth of work to do. I suppose it’s real similar to people’s vegetable gardens in town,” said a 50-something man named Cal.

Cal and the others working at the garden are part of a 16-person collective that over the last two years has pooled time and resources to grow medical cannabis cooperatively. Some of them are fresh-faced 20-year-olds; others are middle-aged working parents or are disabled and physically unable to grow on their own.

But the Butte County Board of Supervisors is currently considering an ordinance that would make this garden, and many others like it, illegal. If the board passes the law during its next meeting on Tuesday (May 24), the collective will have to tear out most of the crop a month into the growing season or be in violation of Butte County law. The grow site sits on 10 acres, and according to the proposed ordinance a parcel this size would be limited to 12 mature marijuana plants. That, members of the collective say, will not provide a sufficient amount of cannabis for their needs.

“With the limits that they’re trying to impose now, 12 of the people will be out of luck. They live in apartments or they just have nowhere else at all to grow, period,” Cal said. “There are only four people out of our 16 that have a back yard.”

The members of Cal’s collective who do have the option to grow on their personal property live in the heart of Chico with small back yards surrounded by many neighbors. Critics argue that if the larger grows are dismantled, smaller individual operations will take their place and actually lead to an increase in public-nuisance complaints.

“It’s like whack-a-mole: If you forbid it someplace, then it’s going to go someplace else,” said District 3 Supervisor Maureen Kirk, who represents part of Chico. “And I am concerned that we’re going to have more neighborhood grows. As it’s written right now it’s a little bit problematic.”

As gardens have become more prevalent in the county, so have the list of complaints from disgruntled neighbors. Concerns over illegal sales, smell, environmental degradation, and crime top the list.

Bill Connelly, supervisor for District 1, which includes the Oroville area, said he has received a “flood of complaints” from parents and neighbors who fear getting caught in the crossfire of violence from armed robbery.

“I think that’s a realistic concern when people [who are growing marijuana] are sleeping in their back yards in urban and rural areas, and have their guard dogs and their guns. In some cases, in rural areas, they build guard towers,” he said.

While no one seems to contest that these concerns are real, some question whether the ordinance as currently written will effectively address the problem.

Kirk said she’d like to see the ordinance be less strict, allowing more plants per parcel, so that people involved in legitimate co-ops don’t feel compelled to start up new backyard grows.

At the board’s last meeting (May 4), the supervisors adopted language that would forbid growing outdoors on a half-acre or less in the unincorporated parts of the county. Properties greater than a half-acre would be allowed six mature marijuana plants; those bigger than an acre and a half would be allowed 12 plants; larger than 20 acres, 24 plants; larger than 80 acres, 36 plants; and larger than 160 acres, 99 mature plants. There is also a required fee and registration with the Department of Development Services for anyone growing more than six plants.

While critics fear this attempt at curbing disreputable operations might at the same time outlaw responsible cultivation, both Connelly and District Attorney Mike Ramsey pointed out that the ordinance will be complaint-driven.

“There’s no code enforcement that’s going to go out and be searching the county to regulate,” Ramsey said. “It’s only going to be based upon neighbors that do complain. The folks that are out in the middle of nowhere who are not affecting any neighbors should not be affected.”

That’s fairly good news for Cal and Jack’s co-op. They’ve made regular contributions to the association fund that maintains the gravel road in the neighborhood where the garden is located. The tidy site is fenced off and the group doesn’t use guns or dogs.

However, some of the members have expressed concern that, if they don’t register with the county—which would require they disclose the number of plants in their garden—they could get busted at any time with a single complaint. In order to continue their operation as it currently exists they would have to explicitly misrepresent themselves to county officials.

The supervisors are “going about this backwards,” Cal said. “You should be encouraging people to get together and do these grows within the 99-plant limit. That way there’s fewer grows, and they’re all off not bothering anybody.”