HumCo Gets Conservative On Medical Pot

by Daniel Mintz, December 21, 2011

After almost two years of work, the county has taken a conservative approach to regulating medical marijuana, approving a restrictive indoor growing ordinance and a 45-day freeze on dispensary applications.

The dispensary moratorium and a new medical marijuana ordinance that sets a hard 50 square foot indoor residential growing space limit were approved at the Dec. 13 Board of Supervisors meeting. The version of the ordinance approved by a majority of supervisors was the most restrictive of three that county staff had developed.

Both actions react to recent state court decisions and federal pressure, which county legal staff cited as reasons to be cautious. A public comment session on the ordinance only drew seven speakers and several of them said the ordinance’s space limit and its 1,200 watt lighting cap are too restrictive.

Some called for the continuance of the ordinance the county adopted in 2004, which allows a 100 square foot per patient space limit. The new ordinance differs markedly in that it’s per residence.

But during the discussion on the ordinance, Supervisor Jimmy Smith said his caution is motivated by the occurrence of “some very serious crimes” related to marijuana growing and what he’s heard from police, youth services workers and residents of his district.

“I’ve been looking at this, reading about it and trying to understand more about this from parents, law enforcement and most notably, a range of neighborhoods in my district where trouble started,” Smith continued. “We didn’t have the practical tools to deal with the smells and the people who had taken advantage of the system, which was actually very lenient.”

Although Board Chairman Mark Lovelace emphasized that the county needs to change its former ordinance, he was the only supervisor who voted against the new one. He said he prefers the alternative proposal which would allow up to 100 square feet of growing space if certain nuisance-abatement conditions are met.

In taking up the dispensary item, supervisors were told by Assistant County Counsel Carolyn Ruth that “the county’s ability to regulate these facilities is in serious doubt at this time.”

The root of much of the doubt is a recent decision from the state’s 2nd District Court of Appeal, which ruled that the City of Long Beach’s medical marijuana regulations are inapplicable because they violate federal law.

And the feds have been more aggressive about enforcing their laws, threatening and in some cases shutting down dispensaries.

But during public comment, Alison Sterling-Nichols, the executive director of the Humboldt Growers Association, urged supervisors to heed their moral compasses instead legal ones.

“Gay marriage, civil rights in the south — people have made a lot of really hard decisions and looked like the jerks but were the heroes of the future,” she said. “I think it’s really important that you look at what’s right,” she added, noting that the feds haven’t made good on threats to charge public officials who enable medical marijuana production.

Supervisors decided to heed Ruth’s warnings and her descriptions of a “somewhat furious reaction” from federal law enforcers. Supervisor Clif Clendenen made it clear that his vote in favor of the moratorium was being made reluctantly, saying that he doesn’t support “tiptoeing backwards” from progress that’s been made.

Lovelace described the moratorium as something of a time-out while legal issues are settled. And he disagreed with those who characterized the county as being complicit with an attack on civil rights.

He noted that one public commenter “came in through security, came up to the podium and waved around a couple of bags of bud” without being hassled. “Step by step, I think we are getting toward a more rational discussion about this topic,” he said.

If the 45-day moratorium is extended, it will have to come back before supervisors in another public hearing. It freezes new dispensary applications as well as the eight applications that are in the process of being reviewed.

An ordinance regulating outdoor medical marijuana cultivation is also envisioned and will be worked on.

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