Supervisors extend, amend pot moratoria

By From page A1 | December 23, 2011

El Dorado County Supervisors voted 4-1 Tuesday to extend the county moratorium prohibiting new medical marijuana dispensaries, cooperatives and collectives. The extension runs from Dec. 20 until Nov. 15, 2012 — that is 10 months and 15 days, as provided under state law.

Supervisor John Knight opposed the action, which included a variation on the companion moratorium. His preference was to keep the ban on all outdoor growing of medical cannabis during the same time period.

As amended by a 3-2 vote the latter moratorium allows individual “qualified patients” to grow their medicine on a plot not to exceed 200 square feet, which must not be visible to the unaided eye of a neighbor or passerby. The garden must be enclosed by an opaque fence not less than 6 feet nor more than 8 feet in height.

An earlier compromise recommendation from a citizens advisory committee had suggested a limit of 100 square feet, however a number of cultivators in attendance told the board that the lower number would be unfeasible and far less productive.

Supervisors Ron Briggs, Norma Santiago, Jack Sweeney and Chairman Ray Nutting expressed concern that the 100 square feet proposal was probably not realistic and would also be difficult to monitor.

Much of the issue revolves around the difference between people cultivating medical cannabis in an urban setting versus growing in a rural area. Knight, representing the El Dorado Hills residential neighborhoods, has been most vocal about receiving complaints about neighbors growing pot in small yards, visible to other residents and giving off smells that may be offensive to others.

“I’ve received many calls and e-mails that say 100 square feet is too much,” Knight said.

At that point in the hearing, supervisors went into closed session with County Counsel Lou Green and deputy county counsel Paula Frantz to discuss certain legal issues associated with the moritoria.

“Please keep in mind that we’re peaceful people,” one audience member shouted as the supervisors and staff exited the board chambers.

After about 10 minutes the board returned to continue the meeting and offered language to clarify and amend the moritorium on outside cultivation that would become the final resolution.

Supervisor Ron Briggs had favored a graduated scale of something like 100 square feet for one person, 200 for two and 250 for three cultivators and eventually opposed the “200 feet” part of the amendment. After the meeting Briggs explained his vote on that section.

“It won’t work in El Dorado Hills. The final product of an ordinance will have to differentiate between an urban and rural grow,” he said. Briggs added that the final ordinance also would “put teeth” into the compliance code and help bring “order to neighborhoods.”

Earlier Briggs noted, “I do have a problem with 100 square feet. Ten by ten feet is ultra-restrictive, but in town people would say one-foot by one-foot is too much.”

While other counties, particularly Mendocino and Humboldt, have enacted medical cannabis cultivation ordinances, Frantz explained to the board early on that “medical marijuana is not considered a crop by agricultural standards and does not have the same protections as agricultural crops under state law.”

That was in response to audience suggestions that the issue should be considered under state laws concerning “the right to farm” on privately-owned land.

El Dorado County Sheriff John D’Agostini testified that there have been few state guidelines for law enforcement regarding legal cultivation of medical marijuana.

“Typically, it’s been an issue for the district attorney. I don’t have a problem with 420 or 215.” (Proposition 215 is the Compassionate Use Act of 1996; Senate Bill 420, the Medical Marijuana Program Act, took effect in January 2004 and further refines and clarifies the CUA.)

D’Agostini, however, added that “the problem has gotten out of hand.” The problem is not with those few residents growing for their own medical use but rather with criminal gangs or individuals growing for profit.

“We get many, many complaints, and we’re going to start to see huge grows and rip-offs and homicides. And that’s what we’re seeing. The spirit of Prop. 215 is to help those who are dying and allows collective, cooperative cultivation but not sale for profit.”

Several dozen local, medical marijuana users and their supporters and care providers attended the meeting. Many spoke about their personal experiences and medical need for cannabis. One  woman told the board that she had been dependent on Oxycontin for pain management for eight years at a cost of nearly $400 per month. She can grow a year’s supply of medical pot for basically nothing, and it works much better, she said.

Another said she can’t grow her own because she and her husband live in a trailer park. Her husband is dying of cancer and needs the palliative effects of medical cannabis, she said between sobs. She said she is asthmatic and pot has reduced her visits to the emergency room from about 12 a year to only two a year.

A man told the board he has ulcerative colitis that included bleeding from the rectum. Medical marijuana put a stop to those symptoms, but the “cure is total legalization,” he said speaking more universally.

In a more confrontational tone, Paul Zimmerman said marijuana hasn’t killed anyone lately, but alcohol has. “You should have a moratorium on alcohol. You bend over backwards for someone growing grapes, but you stop me from growing my medicine.”

Baord members generally tried to reassure the audience that it was not their intent to deprive those in need of medical marijuana.

“This is a big issue in El Dorado County. Our sheriff needs clear tools for enforcing the laws,” Nutting said. “I don’t want to criminalize an option for people in their final days… And I hope everybody understands this is about the ordinance not the medical use.”

Twice during the meeting, Nutting referred to an elderly neighbor of his who used pot  toward the end of a terminal illness. He insisted he would not criminalize such use for those who need it.

Since the original moritoria were enacted last month, county staff and individuals representing both patients and medical providers have formed an advisory committee to help steer the issue into the future. Both Briggs and Knight are serving as board representatives on the committee.

The board directed its staff to continue to meet with the committee and to prepare strategies for dealing with cultivation and distribution issues including planning and zoning regulations and report back to the Planning Commission and the board.

Chris Daley

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