Reefer rules reconsidered
As supes move forward on medi-pot restrictions, advocates promise public vote
Just minutes before the Butte County Board of Supervisors meeting in Oroville on Tuesday (Jan. 28), a young man sat on a bench outside the chambers rolling what very much appeared to be a joint, evidently unconcerned by the county sheriff’s headquarters located just up the sidewalk.
It was a sign that local pot advocates—some perhaps a bit more brash than others—had shown up in force to protest recently proposed changes to the county’s medical-marijuana ordinance. Indeed, the chambers were filled to capacity with medi-pot growers and users, many of whom blasted proposed amendments to the ordinance as prohibitively restrictive during the public-comment section of the meeting.
From the supervisors’ perspective, it was a striking departure from previous board meetings regarding the cultivation ordinance. For months, vocal constituents have urged the panel to tighten regulations in order to address issues related to large pot grows in the county’s eastern foothills—namely, environmental degradation caused by grading activity, a perceived increase in criminal activity, and general nuisances such as the plant’s strong odor.
The supervisors responded last December by approving amendments that require any marijuana garden to be on a property with an “occupied legal residence” and permitted plumbing and sewage systems, and increasing fines for violations.
But those changes were relatively uncontroversial compared to those proposed at the Jan. 14 supervisors’ meeting to limit the size of marijuana gardens by square footage rather than number of plants, thereby drastically reducing the county’s current 99-plant limit.
“We knew the [restrictions] would be very contentious,” Supervisor Steve Lambert said. “The thought was, ‘Let’s deal with what we can agree on, and then get back to what we know no one is going to agree on.’”
Supervisor Bill Connelly also acknowledged that the board is in “a tough situation.”
“It’s the only issue I’ve been called corrupt on by both sides,” he said.
During a summary of the proposed amendments, Paul Hahn, the county’s chief administrative officer, noted that nothing would change for parcels smaller than a half-acre. As currently written, the ordinance requires any marijuana grown on properties of that size be contained within a detached structure no larger than 120 square feet and set back at least 15 feet from property lines.
But much would be different for growers on larger properties, with new guidelines for setback distances and the required number of doctor’s recommendations—which Connelly defined as a “written current recommendation signed by a licensed California physician”—for each garden size.
For instance, on parcels larger than a half-acre but smaller than 5 acres, outdoor gardens would be permissible but limited to an area of 50 square feet with 50-foot setbacks. In addition, growers with gardens of that size would need at least one doctor’s recommendation.
Pot gardens on properties of between 5 and 10 acres would be limited to 100 square feet and would require at least 75-foot setbacks and two doctor’s recommendations. Gardens on properties greater than 10 acres in size could not exceed 150 square feet, and would need at least 150-foot setbacks and three doctor’s recommendations.
The same setback rules would apply to the harvesting and drying process, which is often the most pungent stage of cultivation and, therefore, represents the greatest nuisance to neighbors. And while the current ordinance allows only formal complaints from neighbors within 1,500 feet of a property, the changes would allow “anyone to complain if they believe an illegal grow is occurring,” Hahn said.
Prior to opening the floor for public comment, members of the board appeared to brace for heated arguments. Supervisor Doug Teeter reminded attendees to remain “respectful of the board,” while Lambert added: “If you really have some constructive things to say, that’d be appreciated, but if you just want to say [the supervisors] are not the smartest people in the whole world, this is going to be counterproductive.” Aside from a handful of emotional outbursts from speakers and members of the audience, civility was mostly maintained.
Several medicinal-marijuana users argued that the proposed limits would simply not allow for a sufficient supply of medicine. One woman said, “I’m stopping the growth of cancer in my body internally and externally with cannabis. You people are overriding my doctor. He’s recommending I have 27 plants to cover my medical needs. I eat it for digestion, I use it for sleep and I inhale it for friendship.”
Others pointed out that relying on a small number of plants puts growers and patients at the mercy of variables such as mold issues, pests and inclement weather, arguing that losing a couple plants would effectively cut off a year’s worth of medicine.
Also present was Andrew Merkel, a local real-estate agent and medi-pot advocate who, along with local attorney Rob MacKenzie, helped organize the political action group Butte County Citizens Against Irresponsible Government. In recent weeks, Merkel and his supporters have worked toward launching an initiative that would prevent the supervisors from making further changes to the cultivation ordinance. He also announced his intentions to run for Supervisor Larry Wahl’s seat, which is up for grabs this year.
“Go ahead and do it,” Merkel said to the board, insisting the amendments would come to a public vote. “We are going to referend you.”
The board seemed to agree with Merkel on that point. Shortly before the panel unanimously voted to move forward with the amendments, Supervisor Maureen Kirk acknowledged that “we are probably facing a referendum,” while Connelly said, “Obviously, this is going to go to a vote of the people.”
“And I swear to you, whatever happens with that vote, I will not do one single thing to change [it],” Connelly continued. “This has been vetted—it’s been very public. When [the vote] comes about, we’re going to live with it.”
The board will hold a final reading of the amendments during the upcoming Feb. 11 meeting, but if Merkel’s initiative petition is successful, adoption of the new rules would be put on hold until a November vote.