Clash in the county

Local patients say Sacramento County’s proposed ordinance would shut down almost all medical-cannabis dispensaries in the region

Sacramento County Patients Collective members (back row, left to right): James Dearborn, Kat King, LeeAnn Cole, Akil Barris, Willie Harris, Joy Cole. Front row: Karla DeLaOssa and her dog, Nena; Rebecca Carps, Shawna McKnight, Sonita Sneede.

Sacramento County Patients Collective members (back row, left to right): James Dearborn, Kat King, LeeAnn Cole, Akil Barris, Willie Harris, Joy Cole. Front row: Karla DeLaOssa and her dog, Nena; Rebecca Carps, Shawna McKnight, Sonita Sneede.

Photo By William Leung

No one really knows what will happen next.

It’s only been a couple weeks since Sacramento County first shared the details: On the evening of June 14, at its headquarters at Seventh and H streets, staff gave a PowerPoint presentation outlining proposed tough new regulations pertaining to the cultivation and dispensing of medical cannabis.

Sacramento patients and club owners at the meeting quickly figured out the new rules would put most dispensaries out of business. Activists instantly mobilized.

The ordinance suggests many bans, some unprecedented in California, such as the outlawing of “edibles” and outdoor cultivation.

“It’ll literally close everybody down,” said Damien Payne, president of Sacramento County Patients Collective, an activist group of patients and dispensary owners, after the meeting.

The county doesn’t dispute this. “It was understood by the group that many if not most [dispensaries] would not be able to meet the distant setbacks,” planning commissioner Leighann Moffitt told SN&R.

The region’s first dispensary popped up in a Citrus Heights living room some years after voters passed Proposition 215, in 1996, which gave patients with a valid doctor’s recommendation the right to possess and cultivate marijuana for personal medical use. Later, when the Medical Marijuana Program Act was inked by Gov. Gray Davis in 2003, a few more dispensaries opened.

Then, beginning around September 2008, floodgates: The next president would be Barack Obama, who’d promised during his campaign to stand down on medical cannabis, and dispensaries opened by the dozen.

But while the city enacted a moratorium (which expires in July), urged dispensaries to register in good faith and eventually approved an ordinance last year, the county still views clubs as illegal. It has empowered its code-enforcement department, which has cited about 30 clubs in the county with fines—in some cases $1,000-a-day penalties—for operating unlawfully.

But this approach has done little to achieve its goals. County staff estimates there are some 50 clubs, but other sources who work for the county and some in the cannabis industry say the real number could be twice that.

Interim County Executive Steve Szalay told SN&R last year that new ordinance would be ready by February 2011. That month passed, and county public information officer Chris Andis explained in March that the ordinance had been pushed back until at least May.

Finally, staff presented an “urgency” ordinance for vote to the five supervisors—who’d only just seen the document the Friday before—last Tuesday.

“It’s an urgent issue,” explained planning commissioner Moffitt.

An urgency ordinance must be approved by four supervisors, not just a majority of three, and also must be renewed 45 days after initial approval.

Thereafter, the county would have two years to complete a final ordinance.

Area patients and activists recognized the urgency. They converged on last Tuesday’s meeting by the hundreds. Coordinated mostly by Payne’s SCPC group, nearly 80 people signed up to speak before the supervisors during the public comment.

Before the meeting, dispensary owner Andre Wilson, who opened Green Lotus in October 2010, was disappointed. “They have such great models with the city and San Francisco,” he said, “and [the county] decided to reinvent the wheel.”

Medical-cannabis activists protest the Sacramento County urgency ordinance on Friday, June 17, on 16th and J streets—sometime around 4:20 p.m.

Photo By jerome love

Even local attorney Mark Reichel, who represents the dispensaries as part of the Sacramento Alliance of County Collectives, said he was uncertain as to the day’s outcome. “I don’t even know, because we’re just in shock,” he told SN&R. “This could be a fait accompli.”

It wasn’t: The day ended in a unanimous “no” vote. The supervisors, who were visibly frustrated with staff during the six-hour hearing, sent the draft back to them with strong direction and will rehear the urgency ordinance on Tuesday, July 26.

Supervisors such as Don Nottoli, whose district is mostly rural parts of the county, argued to not enact a moratorium, as that would be a tacit acknowledgement of a medical-cannabis dispensary’s legality.

Meanwhile, new dispensaries continue to open in the county, and those in the cannabis community anticipate an influx of last-gasp clubs opening shop before the supervisors’ July meeting.

Board chairwoman Roberta MacGlashan urged the staff to look at cities such as Folsom, which has been successful in banning dispensaries—“since we haven’t had much luck at doing that,” she noted. But Folsom is only one-twentieth the size of the county, more on par with the size of Orangevale, part of MacGlashan’s district.

Orangevale is in fact half Folsom’s size but is home to at least eight medical-cannabis dispensaries. This is mostly due to the fact that neighboring Placer County and Citrus Heights have banned the clubs, so patients from those municipalities often frequent Orangevale for medicine. MacGlashan has made it clear she wants all Orangevale clubs shut down.

Supervisor Susan Peters’ district includes Arden Arcade, Carmichael, Fair Oaks and Citrus Heights—areas in the county with the greatest number of medical-cannabis dispensaries. She instructed staff to explore both a cap on the number of clubs allowed in the county in addition to also looking at the overconcentration of clubs in certain areas.

Both supervisors Jimmie Yee and Phil Serna are considered the two most likely to endorse an ordinance comparable to that in the city. Yet both shared reservations. Serna asked staff to look at overconcentration and security, in addition to going back to the drawing board completely with regard to cultivation regulations.

And still, again, no one really knows what will happen next.

Indoor cultivation could be limited to a couple dozen plants—county staff had no idea what the state laws entailed as far as the number of plants someone can legally grow (it’s 99, mostly a rule of thumb)—and would require at least a 100-foot setback from property lines.

Dispensaries also would not be allowed to cultivate, in addition to having to close earlier, by 7 p.m., or possibly relocate if they are within 1,000 feet of a residential zone or a list of myriad “sensitive uses.”

Also on the table is monthly and annual auditing of dispensaries, which is not unprecedented in the county—such reporting takes place with charitable bingo operations—and San Jose also has a similar requirement.

“It is a way of monitoring compliance,” explained county PIO Andis.

At the same time, two regional clubs have been raided this year due to alleged “noncompliance” and what the Sacramento district attorney’s office is calling “violation of Prop. 215” and operating for profit.

Activists are discouraged, confused—but hopeful. They remember that, in the city, the process was similar: City council wanted to cap the number of clubs at 12, but in a matter of months changed their minds.

And then there’s the money factor. Medical-cannabis lobbyist Max Del Real, who along with former City Councilman Robbie Waters represents SACC, told the board of supervisors that the county could see at least “$3 million” in annual tax revenue if they were to grandfather in, tax and regulate existing clubs. The city of Sacramento anticipates at least $1.5 million in tax revenue next fiscal year from its clubs.

There’s also the possibility of only certain districts permitting dispensaries and cultivation, since there exists in some cases vast discrepancy of thinking from supervisor to supervisor.

In the meantime, the county has 11 advisory panels planned throughout the region, where the public can provide feedback on the ordinance process.

Whatever happens, it’ll be a fight.

“A lot of this is going to be a back-and-forth game,” said Payne of SCPC, “but they’re definitely not catering to the patients.”