Dazed and confused

City Council doesn’t know what to do about medical-marijuana grows

Sometimes, at Chico City Council meetings, the news has as much to do with what is not said as with what is said. Such was the case during the City Council’s late-hour (after 11 p.m.) discussion at its meeting Tuesday (Oct. 2) about backyard medical-marijuana gardens inside city limits.

Earlier this year some neighbors of such grows had complained about the stink the flowering plants give off for about a month around harvest time, saying it destroys their ability to be outdoors in their own yards. They also worried about the crime the grows attracted, in the form of sometimes violent patch pirates.

At the time, the council (with Larry Wahl dissenting) punted, saying the matter of zoning for medpot could be dealt with in the new general plan, still 18 months from completion. But it did ask City Attorney Lori Barker to look at how other cities had dealt with the issue, thinking that might provide some guidelines toward a possible ordinance.

At issue Tuesday was Barker’s finding that other communities—she named Arcata, Ukiah and Willits—had largely solved the problem of individual grows (but not collective or cooperative grows) by requiring that they be done indoors or in secure structures outdoors.

This approach received strong approval from those at the meeting who were bothered by the grows, but was highly unpopular with a similar number of folks present who were growing the herb.

Barbara O’Brien was in the former camp. She lives across the street from a house where pot is grown, and it gives off “a horrific odor that starts in mid-September and lasts until harvest in mid-October.” She has asthma, she said, and because of the odor has to keep her windows closed at night during that period.

Another woman, Christine Johnson, said she gets migraines from the odor from a neighbor’s garden. “It’s not a nuisance, it’s sickening,” she said.

On the other hand, Mark Herrera said this was a case of “not in my neighbor’s back yard,” insisting that people have a right to provide their own medicine.

Another pro-pot speaker, Rebecca Hernandez, opened with the dramatic proclamation, “I’m sick, I’m dying, and I have four kids.” She went on to say her husband was a Marine serving in Iraq who has been fighting for her right to grow the marijuana she needs. “Six plants [the current Butte County limit] is not enough for me, but that’s what I have. … You guys are putting a capitation on my business.”

Quentin Colgan let the council know, in no uncertain terms, that “Smells are a part of life. They happen.” Some people find the smell of marijuana pleasant, he argued.

One of the speakers, Ken Prather, was from Corning, where he operates a medpot dispensary downtown, carefully following the state’s Marijuana Program Act in doing so, he said.

“California state law occupies this field entirely,” he told the council. Reminding it that a court of appeals had recently found, in Williams v. Butte County, that the county had acted illegally in taking out a collective garden, he warned the council that it might face lawsuits if it interferes with patients’ right to grow their medicine.

Other speakers noted that growing indoors under lights is expensive and uses a lot of electricity, contrary to the city’s emphasis on sustainability. “Many of these growers are on Medi-Cal,” said speaker Robin Blue. “They can’t afford it.”

The council seemed confused by the differing positions, and that confusion wasn’t helped when Barker pointed out that the state is rife with court cases dealing with medical marijuana, so the whole situation is in flux.

Some council members also didn’t seem to know much about the product. Councilwoman Mary Flynn, for example, seemed not to know that the valuable part of the plant was the female flower, and that male plants are unwanted because they fertilize the female, thereby producing seeds and lowering quality.

There was also an important question that was never asked: How much money is involved?

For some reason, council members seemed to forget that growing marijuana is a business, and that money is always a factor. Plants grown outdoors do better and produce more buds than plants grown indoors. A single plant grown outdoors can be worth anywhere from $2,500 to $8,000, depending on quality and how the product is sold.

Yes, many people smoke marijuana for legal medical reasons. But it’s naïve to think that’s all there is to medpot grows. Medpot growers can sell what they don’t use (quite legally) to dispensaries like Prather’s or (illegally, but more lucratively) to street buyers. For many, it’s a big part of their annual income.

As the clock struck midnight, the council decided to send the matter back to its Internal Affairs Committee, which has already examined the issue once, and to form an ad-hoc citizens’ advisory group to help draft an ordinance.

Maybe, when they figure out how to handle individual grows, they’ll start working on dispensaries and collective grows. More likely, however, growers and dealers will force the issue sooner rather than later, citing—as Prather did—state laws as their guideposts.