Supervisors tackle red-hot medi-pot issue

Commit county to coming up with an ordinance regulating dispensaries

Until now, Butte County has kept a low profile on the controversial issue of medical-marijuana dispensaries, watching as other counties and many cities have tried to muddle through what has turned out to be a swamp of vague and often conflicting legalities. That ended Tuesday (Jan. 12), when the Board of Supervisors jumped into the fray with both feet.

The board’s immediate action was to impose a temporary moratorium on dispensaries in the county, but that wasn’t as significant as it might have appeared. As Supervisor Jane Dolan eventually pointed out, dispensaries already are illegal simply because they aren’t a permitted use under the county’s zoning ordinance.

What’s significant about the moratorium in the long term, however, is that it commits the county to coming up with an ordinance either zoning for and regulating dispensaries or prohibiting them altogether. And, as elected officials elsewhere have discovered, as much as they would like to ban dispensaries outright, it’s difficult to do so.

The county will have about two years to come up with an ordinance. The temporary moratorium is for only 45 days, explained County Counsel Bruce Alpert, but it can be extended for an additional 22 months.

In the meantime, it’s unclear what will happen to the existing medical-marijuana purveyors in the county. Sheriff J.W. Smith was terse and blunt when he told the supervisors the law was very clear that dispensaries are illegal and that he was “obligated to enforce the law.” District Attorney Mike Ramsey agreed with Smith.

It was obvious that Smith and Ramsey were opposed to having dispensaries in the county, preferring to limit medical-marijuana production to backyard grows and similar small-scale operations. But several speakers pointed out what they saw as the shortcomings of that position.

They argued that, when voters passed Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Act of 1996, they intended for people to be able to obtain medical marijuana if they needed it. The lack of dispensaries selling it to qualified buyers makes it difficult to obtain, they said.

Richard Tognali, who operates SOS (Script Only Service) in Chico, which he defines as a collective but advertises in local papers, pointed out that growing pot takes time and effort that some patients simply don’t have. “Some of them will die before they get any relief,” he insisted.

If patients can’t get their “medicine” locally, they’ll either have to go to other cities to get it or go underground. “Making this more criminal makes no sense,” he said.

Several speakers disagreed with Ramsey’s insistence that dispensaries are illegal, citing Attorney General Jerry Brown’s guidelines that allow sales by nonprofit groups. A man named Hoke Murray, of Oroville, said he was a member of High Sierra NORML and offered to help develop workable guidelines. He explained to a puzzled Supervisor Kim Yamaguchi that NORML stood for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

Ken Prather, a founder of the THC collective in Corning, pointed out that his group was an incorporated nonprofit, had workers’ compensation insurance, and paid taxes. Dispensaries, he said, “are supposed to remove the illegality so people can obtain their medication” without having to go to the street, where they’re in danger of getting ripped off or beaten up, he stated.

Referring to the disagreement over whether dispensaries were legal, Alpert noted that several court cases addressing that very issue were in process and that “the courts have not yet spoken definitively” on the legal issues brought up during the hearing. “They probably will do so during the period of the moratorium,” he added. “[That period is] to allow you an opportunity to study the issue.”

Following the public hearing, Dolan noted that dispensaries were already illegal and reiterated that “the moratorium will require us to come up with some rules” and that county staff would be working to do so. She urged people to contact Alpert’s office if they wanted to participate in the process.