Cultivating rumors

County officials set record straight on Measure A lawsuit

Because of Measure A, many growers have moved their gardens indoors.

Because of Measure A, many growers have moved their gardens indoors.

A couple of false rumors regarding Butte County’s laws and officials have been spreading via social media. Take, for instance, an obituary for District Attorney Mike Ramsey posted on Facebook.

Appearing before the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday (April 7) in Oroville, Ramsey assured the panel that he’s very much alive. He also said the fabricated obituary was posted by a resident of the Berry Creek area—the same origin of a second false rumor on Facebook regarding Measure A, the ballot initiative passed into law by voters last November that restricts medical marijuana gardens by square footage rather than number of plants.

As Chief Administrative Officer Paul Hahn explained earlier in the meeting, word had spread that, in response to a pending lawsuit seeking to cease enforcement of Measure A, a court had deemed the law unconstitutional.

“That is not the case by any means of the imagination,” Hahn said. “There has been no ruling by the court on the merits of the complaint in any way. … This is an example of people on social media getting excited, passing along bad information and how quickly it can get out there.”

The lawsuit in question was filed in Butte County Superior Court on Feb. 3 by San Rafael-based attorney Scot Candell, who is representing Donald Ehrsam, Raymond Sperry and Gina Endler of Oroville and Douglas Gunning of Berry Creek. Like many local medical marijuana advocates, the plaintiffs argue the ordinance is prohibitively restrictive and will prevent patients from accessing their medicine. Shortly after filing the lawsuit, Candell told the CN&R that Measure A “violates the spirit of [California’s] Compassionate Use Act—that everyone can get their medicine, and everyone is treated equally.”

But county officials contend there is no legal basis for the suit. County Counsel Bruce Alpert told the supervisors on Tuesday that he’s confident the case won’t hold up in court.

“There have been total bans on the cultivation of marijuana in various counties and cities; other jurisdictions have banned outdoor grows, or indoor grows,” he said. “It’s all over the map. But what’s clear is that local jurisdictions have the authority to ban or limit the cultivation of medical marijuana.”

In response to the lawsuit, the county filed a demurrer, essentially an objection to the charges that amounts to the county shrugging its shoulders and saying, “So what?” A court hearing on the demurrer is scheduled for the first week of May.

Based on the county’s extensive education campaign called Stay in the Box and its hiring of six additional code enforcement officers to hit the foothills, it’s clear that officials don’t intend Measure A to be an empty law.

“We are vigorously enforcing Measure A,” Alpert said. “It’s in effect, it needs to be followed or people will be cited or brought to a hearing—meaning we’ll get an order to remove all plants being grown outside the parameters of our ordinance. We’re taking an aggressive stance on this.”

Since Measure A was enacted Jan. 8, the county has investigated complaints on 74 marijuana gardens, mostly in the Oroville area, said Tim Snellings, director of Development Services. Code enforcement has issued 16 citations and handed down a total of $21,000 in fines. To date, only $3,800 has been collected—a fact that didn’t sit well with Supervisor Larry Wahl.

“Where’s the other $17,000?” he asked. “Are these guys deadbeats?”

“We’re not ignoring those,” Hahn responded. “We will continue to pursue those fines.”

Measure A has seemingly driven marijuana cultivators indoors, Snellings said. In fact, every complaint the county has investigated this year has been of an indoor garden. Moving inside “seems like a logical reaction to Stay in the Box,” he said.

Even so, several of the visits have led to criminal cases in which “hundreds of plants were present,” Snellings said.

To date, sheriff’s deputies accompanying code enforcement personnel on inspections have made five arrests related to illegal grows and have shut down two honey oil labs—operations involving potentially hazardous chemicals that are, for prosecutorial purposes, under the same section of health and safety code as methamphetamine labs, Ramsey said.