Fresno County bans outdoor pot gardens

by Brad Branan, Fresno Bee

Outdoor organic growth is optimal for many patients now

Worried about recent violence at homes with backyard pot farms, Fresno County supervisors Tuesday approved an emergency ban on outdoor medical-marijuana cultivation in unincorporated areas.

The ban, which took effect immediately, will last 45 days while county officials develop a permanent ordinance governing the growth of medical marijuana.

County officials must decide how to enforce the emergency ordinance, County Counsel Kevin Briggs said. Among the questions will be whether — and how — to make growers yank out existing gardens.

Authorized users of medical marijuana can still grow the plant indoors, he said. Supervisors also stressed that people who are legally entitled to use medical marijuana should be able to grow enough to meet their own needs.

“This is being aimed at the large operations — the abusers,” said Supervisor Debbie Poochigian.

Supervisor Henry Perea said he proposed the ordinance because of recent violence over pot plants inside Fresno city limits: four shootings, one fatal. He also lashed out at the medical-marijuana proponents, saying they have turned a well-intentioned law into a sham. Many people approved for medical-marijuana usage have no legitimate need, he said. “It’s become impossible for me to differentiate the good from the bad. This issue really upsets me.”

In an interview, Lt. Rick Ko, commander of narcotics for the Sheriff’s Office, estimated that tens of thousands — and possibly hundreds of thousands — of marijuana plants are grown for medicinal purposes in Fresno County. A plant produces roughly a pound of marijuana a year.

Medical-marijuana advocates told the board they were being unfairly targeted for the activity of criminals when dispensary operators follow the law. Attorney Brenda Linder, representing area dispensaries, said she thinks the county’s prohibition violates state law. Voters approved a ballot proposition in 1996 authorizing medical marijuana. Linder didn’t indicate whether she would challenge the county’s ordinance in court.

The California Supreme Court has ruled that local government can’t set a limit on the number of plants a medical-marijuana user may have, Linder said. Therefore, an outright prohibition on outdoor growing is illegal, she said.

While not anywhere near as popular as dispensary bans, some California communities have restricted the growth of medical marijuana, including Red Bluff and Manteca. Kris Hermes, spokesman for Americans for Safe Access, which tracks such laws, said he’s not aware of any legal challenge to pot-farm bans.

Christine Gasparac, press secretary for the state attorney general, said the office generally doesn’t comment on the validity of locally approved laws. Guidelines issued by the office two years ago said people responsible for three patients could have up to 18 plants.

The city of Clovis approved controls on marijuana cultivation five years ago, including a requirement that outdoor plants be secured to prevent theft and other crime, said City Manager Kathy Millison. The city considered banning outdoor growing but found legal problems. But the city is re-examining the possibility because of increased criminal activity surrounding pot farms, she said.

The board’s decision Tuesday comes on the heels of a recent county decision to place a moratorium on new medical-marijuana dispensaries. An earlier decision by the city of Fresno to ban dispensaries led to a big increase in dispensaries in unincorporated areas, particularly in areas near the city.

As was the case with the dispensaries, supervisors said they were concerned that marijuana farming would lead to crime. In recent Fresno incidents, efforts by some to steal marijuana have provoked shootings.

In an interview, Sheriff Margaret Mims said she’s not aware of similar incidents in unincorporated areas. But the prohibition on pot farming is a good idea because it sends a message that county leaders are opposed to large-scale marijuana cultivation, Mims said. She said she doesn’t know how many medical-marijuana farms operate in Fresno County, but several collectives that sell medical marijuana grow it in the county.

Supervisors voted 5-0 in support of the ordinance. Supervisor Susan Anderson said she had concerns about the vagueness of the ordinance and how it will be enforced. But Anderson said she shared the concern of other supervisors about the problems caused by medical marijuana.

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