Pot’s back on the ballot

Measure H aims to alter controversial voter-backed medical marijuana cultivation law

When it passed two years ago by popular vote, Measure A was already controversial. In that November election, the medical marijuana cultivation ordinance ran alongside the almost identical Measure B. A was backed by law enforcement and the anti-pot contingent, while B was written and supported by growers. A passed, B didn’t, and now we have H.

Measure H, on the June 7 ballot, is an amended Measure A. Essentially, the county had a hard time collecting fines for out-of-compliance grows and dismissed more nuisance abatement hearings than it held, so staff recommended some changes intended to streamline the enforcement process, which the Board of Supervisors approved in January. Many growers, already miffed by what they considered abuses of power under Measure A, got behind a referendum that put the amended ordinance up for popular vote.

Jessica MacKenzie, who heads the Inland Cannabis Farmers’ Association, has been the loudest voice behind the No on H campaign. Her group backed the referendum and has the support of a large number of medical marijuana growers, patients and advocates. MacKenzie’s biggest problem with the changes to Measure A aren’t the changes themselves, but rather the fact that they came only from the side of enforcement.

“It is our firm belief that unless and until the county solicits and considers input from all the stakeholders affected by this ordinance—farmers, law enforcement, patients, business owners, landlords—and addresses the unequal and inconsistent application and claims of abuse, we should all have to live with the voter-backed version currently in place,” reads the official argument against H, submitted by MacKenzie.

Beyond that, she says, Measure A was flawed to begin with.

“They’re saying they’re amending Measure A to make it better,” MacKenzie said during a recent interview. “But they couldn’t handle it; they didn’t enforce it properly.”

She and others in the pro-cannabis camp have argued that the county has overstepped its bounds in enforcing Measure A, which limits garden sizes based on acreage and also sets forth various code requirements in order to grow marijuana legally. Noncompliance is met with visits from code enforcement, alongside armed deputies, as well as posted notices, fines and hearings. Measure A was intended to be complaint-based, but county staff has admitted publicly that those complaints often come from sheriff’s deputies flying in helicopters, not from neighbors legitimately bothered by a nearby garden.

On the other side, Measure H proponents say that growers have found loopholes in the law to get away with growing more plants than allowed, and that they use stall tactics to avoid penalties and hearings until after harvest time. The amendments, they argue, will “stop the scofflaws.”

Any way you look at it, Measure A had its successes and its failures, as shown in a staff report given to the Board of Supervisors in January. Among the findings for 2015: Code Enforcement received 1,489 complaints, of which 67 percent were closed due to compliance or becoming compliant; 894 citations were issued, equaling $2.9 million in fines, of which $171,175 was collected; 105 nuisance abatement cases were set for hearing, of which 25 were closed before hearing, 19 were heard and 61 were dismissed “because staff anticipated a judgment would not be made in time to abate the nuisance.”

Based on those numbers, it’s clear the county had difficulty collecting fines and holding hearings. Some of that was due to lack of clarity and inefficiencies in the law, staff told supervisors. And so they proposed changes to improve the outcome, the most significant being to combine the civil penalties for violations with the nuisance abatement process, which, done separately, ate up a lot of staff time.

“Under the 2015 program, in order to get a matter to a hearing officer was a very laborious process,” said Tim Snellings, director of Development Services for the county, during a recent phone interview. It often required county staff make four visits to each alleged offending property. “We wanted to streamline the process.” Under Measure H, those visits would be cut in half, reducing staff time and paperwork. In addition, the county would be able to place a lien on a property to recover unpaid fines.

Also on the June 7 ballot and also related to medical marijuana is Measure G, which would amend the county’s Right to Farm act to specify that marijuana is not covered. The impetus behind this change is state law that went into effect in January that qualifies marijuana as an agricultural commodity. The Board of Supervisors approved the amendment and it was blocked by petition.

“The Right to Farm ordinance exempts farming operations from complaints against smell, noise and other factors. We had to decide whether those exemptions for nuisance complaints should apply to marijuana,” Snellings explained. “Staff decided that they should not apply because … marijuana is different.”

MacKenzie filed the official opposition paperwork with the county, arguing that “It is unnecessary because cannabis is already excluded from these protections and will remain so until it becomes federally legal.”

Snellings agreed that the wording of the Right to Farm ordinance does exclude marijuana based on its federal status, but added: “Whenever possible, we want to be as clear as we can.”