Despite three hours of emotional testimony by medical marijuana patients, El Dorado County Supervisors Tuesday voted unanimously to impose a moratorium on new dispensaries and all outdoor gardens.
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Effective immediately, the moratoria will remain for 45 days or until the county crafts a set of ordinances governing the growing and distribution of medical cannabis.
Under state law, a moratorium can be extended twice for up to a total of two years, however supervisors were anxious to have ordinances in place by April 1, 2012. That date generally represents the time when legal growers would begin planting their crop for next year.
The point, supervisors reiterated, was to “get rid of the bad guys, the people with guns” and not to deny individuals safe access to their medications.
Prompted by numerous complaints from residents, county staff along with Sheriff John D’Agostini and District Attorney Vern Pierson, drew up two distinct moratoria — one proscribing new dispensaries and the other disallowing new outdoor cultivation of the medicinal herb.
Tuesday’s hearing drew a more than standing-room-only crowd to supervisors chambers. About two dozen spoke against the proposed moratoria. One spoke in favor, and a couple of others said they supported stronger laws, but opted not to say so publicly, considering the overall tenor of the meeting.
Dave Sisson operates River City Wellness and Pain Management, which dispenses medical marijuana in Shingle Springs. Sisson told supervisors that he “represents 3,000 people in the county who are legitimate medical cannabis patients.”
“At our facility, we make damn sure it doesn’t go to the wrong people,” he said. “We don’t want any trouble with law enforcement or the neighbors or our community. We don’t want any marijuana going to children, and it is unethical for us to allow a patient to use it on our premises or to encourage anyone to drive after using it.”
Sisson said he would be happy to work with the sheriff, the district attorney and the board to come up with an acceptable body of ordinances and regulations governing cultivation and distribution. Supervisors adopted the moratoria and added a directive to establish a committee representing the various stakeholders in the issue.
Sheriff D’Agostini opened the testimony saying he has “no problem upholding what the people of California voted for” (Proposition 215 the Compassionate Use Act in 1996 that authorized growing marijuana for medicinal use by the grower. Senate Bill 420, the Medical Marijuana Program Act was passed in 2003 to clarify the scope of the CUA).
However, he went on to note that “there was no intent to have widespread use” and that many cultivation sites are large, illegal, commercial operations. Illegal money from such enterprises finds its way to “criminals and terrorists,” he said.
D’Agostini also said incidents of marijuana being found at local schools have jumped from eight in 2007 to more than 50 last year.
“You can craft a reasonable ordinance, and I urge you to pass these urgency measures,” D’Agostini concluded.
Several residents explained to the board that they are not able to use prescription medicines because of negative side effects or lack of therapeutic effect on their conditions.
“We believe in safe, clean medicines for patients like myself who can’t stomach pharmaceuticals,” Mary told supervisors. A man in the audience called the criminal view of marijuana compared to other drugs a “double standard” citing drunk driving and methamphetamine use as far more harmful than pot.
Bob McGee of Placerville described his own use of medical cannabis some years ago following cancer and chemotherapy treatment. He said he could not eat or sleep and suffered from constant nausea. A friend gave him a marijuana cookie which brought immediate reduction of some symptoms.
After that, “I smoked marijuana. I ate it in brownies, cookies or Jello. I slept like a baby and ate like a farmer. I used marijuana three or four times a day for a month. When my treatment was over I quit. No addiction. No gateway (to other drugs). Not even a hangover,” McGee said.
McGee and other speakers mentioned the political/economic opposition to marijuana, saying that the liquor industry including wine makers “do not want competition from an inexpensive relaxant.” He said the prison guards union does not want any decrease in dues-paying members, “this in a country with more prisoners per population than any other nation.”
He also said the timber industry opposed legalization of hemp because “it is a far more efficient crop for producing paper than growing trees.”
Dave Bishop of Garden Valley said he “can’t afford to go to a dispensary, (and by growing my own), I’m going to be an outlaw.”
Lynette Davies, representing Crusaders for Patients’ Rights said her group has been actively working for ordinances governing collectives that grow or distribute medical marijuana. She acknowledged that like other drugs “cannabis has side effects, but they’re not physical. They’re political.”
She also pointed out that “this place is full; usually there’s no one here.”
Cody Bass runs the Tahoe Wellness Collective, which dispenses medical cannabis. He told the board that in three years of operation, there have been zero “incidents.” He said the South Lake Tahoe City Council had some of the same concerns as the supervisors and added that “safe access is much better than the criminal element. Take this off your agenda,” he urged.
In a phone interview Wednesday, Sisson said his “overall impression was that they (the board, DA and sheriff) listened to our feedback, but I’m afraid it may have fallen on deaf ears, because they passed it anyway.”
He explained that he sees patients for a wide range of conditions from HIV, depression, Krohns Disease to victims of cancer and other trauma. He added that most of his clientele is over 30, and some well over 30. The demographic in the room Tuesday appeared to fit the latter description.
“Unlike how the sheriff described it, there’s not a bunch of young kids who don’t look sick loitering around,” he said.
Sisson also called the proposed ordinance unnecessary and “overkill as a way to get rid of drug cartels growing marijuana on BLM lands.”
The cost for medical cannabis varies from free to some patients who can’t afford it to $300 an ounce. As a non-profit business, the collective receives “donations” of marijuana grown by its members.
Supervisor Norma Santiago asked why the moratorium on outdoor growing would take effect at this time of year “when it’s not growing?”
Assistant County Counsel Paula Frantz explained that “there’s no easy time to do this, but we wanted to give people enough time to do the least amount of harm and cost.” People needed to know well in advance of growing season whether or not it will be allowed Frantz pointed out. She also clarified that any final ordinance will take longer than 45 days to devise and implement.
Santiago later amended the proposed moratoria language to include forming a committee to “make the guidelines black and white.”
Supervisor Jack Sweeney recalled complaints from people “afraid to go into their own backyards.”
“We want to craft an ordinance that will help us go after the bad guys and abide by the laws of the voters,” he said. “Help us do it correctly. Give us the right words.”
Supervisor Ron Briggs called the proposed ordinances tools for the sheriff and district attorney to “go after the guys who have the guns.”
In summary, as proposed, the first adopted ordinance “imposes a 45-day moratorium on the outdoor cultivation of medical marijuana in the unincorporated areas of El Dorado County.” That was later clarified to read “new” cultivation.
The second part of the ruling “imposes a 45-day moratorium on the establishment of new medical marijuana distribution facilities, including all dispensaries, cooperatives and collectives.”
Part 3 directs staff to “develop and return to the board (with) zoning and other appropriate regulations governing the cultivation of medical marijuana and medical marijuana distribution facilities.”
The board directed county staff and law enforcement to come back to supervisors on Dec. 20 with a progress update on the ordinances.