Hasty decisions

Cities rush to ban medical marijuana—will Chico be next?

In less than a month, dozens of counties and cities across California have taken what many believe to be a step backward when it comes to medical marijuana. In an effort to comply with new state laws that went into effect Jan. 1 and included a March 1 deadline for local governments to act in order to retain regulatory control, many chose the easiest, and strictest, route: Just ban the stuff.

Municipalities in Butte County have followed suit. Oroville adopted a ban on growing and delivery services, as did Biggs and Gridley. In Paradise, a similar ban was passed, with an amendment allowing primary caregivers to deliver medicine to patients but banning delivery services. Chico is next, with action set on the agenda for Feb. 2.

“As much as I’d like to say a lot of that was reflexive, in many it was not,” Chico City Councilman Randall Stone said about the bans. “There’s a desire to have this go away and if we ban it, that means it’s going to go away. But that’s just not the way it works.”

Here’s what has happened to prompt this recent scramble:

1. The state passed three bills, collectively known as the Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act (MMRSA), that went into effect this month. They create a framework for the commercial sale of medical marijuana, including licensing and taxation. They also say that local governments that have laws relating to cultivation will retain local licensing and regulatory authority—but those that don’t will be preempted by the state. The deadline for putting a law on the books is March 1. Chico already has an ordinance regulating cultivation.

Making the issue stickier is the fact that even before MMRSA went into effect, the bills’ authors announced that the deadline had been a mistake, a holdover from a previous version. Assembly Bill 21, which would repeal that deadline, is on the fast track and was passed by the Senate on Monday (Jan. 25). It has widespread support in the Assembly and Gov. Jerry Brown has said he will sign it.

2. The League of California Cities—of which Stone is a member—went out on what Stone called a “road show” to educate municipalities about MMRSA and how to retain local control. The league outlines on its website (cacities.org) the most important aspects of MMRSA and what cities need to know or do. Among those recommendations is instituting a ban on cultivation in municipalities where there is no regulation currently, in order to provide ample time to create thoughtful legislation.

3. Cities across the state took those guidelines, along with the impending deadline, and many chose to ban cultivation, dispensaries and delivery services. (Note: The March 1 date, and the threat of state preemption, relates only to growing medical marijuana. Based on news reports, however, many cities’ staffs lumped dispensaries and delivery services in with a cultivation ban.)

“The league road show has caused a lot of panic in a lot of cities. I think that’s what you’re seeing in Paradise and Oroville,” Stone said. “But, look, this doesn’t have to be as draconian as you’re making it out to be. There’s no reason to ban everything or allow everything; there’s no reason to get so excited.”

Instituting a ban on cultivation and delivery—dispensaries already are not allowed throughout Butte County—has broad implications. For Jessica MacKenzie, a local medical marijuana advocate and director of the Inland Cannabis Farmers’ Association, three things come to mind: crime, the environment and loss of potential financial gain.

“[Bans] give up control and safety of a product people are going to use anyway,” she said during a recent interview. “Regulating it moves it from a black market into a legitimate market economy. Governmental oversight keeps us safe and looks out for the greater, common good.”

MacKenzie is concerned that bans force patients to turn to the black market for their medicine. The black market is not only illegal; it is less transparent as far as growing practices, pesticide use and the actual content of the medicine.

“The best place for a patient to get their medicine is a dispensary or delivery service,” she said. “The more we learn about cannabis as medicine, the more we learn it is combinations of strains; it’s a custom product for custom ailments.”

Brendan Jeffries, who requested his real name and business name not be used in this story, agrees. As someone who went through pharmacy training and now runs a delivery service that serves Northern California, including Chico, he sees firsthand the good medical marijuana does for patients. And he sees his service as a legitimate way for people in the area to get their medicine.

“They can kick us out—but they’re kicking out the legal outlets,” he said. “If they want a black market, then that’s what they’re creating. That’s essentially what it comes down to.”

Butte County has decided not to take further action regarding MMRSA. That means no ban on cultivation or deliveries. “We are comfortable with our present ban on dispensaries ordinance, amended marijuana cultivation ordinance and amended right to farm ordinance,” County Counsel Bruce Alpert wrote in an email. “Under applicable law, anyone delivering marijuana must still be a primary caregiver delivering to a qualified patient. Sale of medicinal marijuana for a profit is not legal in Butte County.”

In regard to next week’s Chico City Council meeting, it is still unclear exactly what City Attorney Vince Ewing will recommend. (Ewing did not respond to the CN&R’s requests for an interview.) One option could be a ban, and others likely will take time to fully study, Stone said.

“My job is to make sure we do this smartly and responsibly and in the best interest of the entire community,” he said. “And that doesn’t sound like a very quick ban in a few short days.”