Sonoma County weighs stricter medical pot rules
Published: Sunday, December 9, 2012 at 8:28 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, December 10, 2012 at 10:17 a.m.
The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors this week could drastically cut the amount of medical marijuana allowed for patients outside city limits.
The board on Tuesday will consider a proposal to get rid of guidelines the supervisors approved six years ago allowing medical marijuana patients to have 30 plants and three pounds of dried pot per year.
Instead, the state limit of six mature plants or 12 immature plants and eight ounces of dried pot per patient is plenty, according to a proposal by Supervisors Shirlee Zane and Valerie Brown, who led an ad hoc committee studying the issue.
Zane described Sonoma County's guidelines as "very permissive" and said they must change to stem a perception that the North Coast is a safe place to illegally cultivate marijuana.
"We're attracting a lot of people here who want to make a lot of money quick," Zane said. "This is a very lucrative industry, and it's got a lot of problems."
The proposal is likely to make the last board meeting of the year -- the final meeting of Brown's career before she leaves her office -- among the most contentious.
Brown could not be reached for comment late Sunday.
The move has enraged some medical cannabis advocates who said the supervisors requested input from law enforcement but left patients out of the process, giving them less than a week's notice before the vote.
"It's outrageous," said Kumari Sivadas of Sonoma Alliance for Medical Marijuana. "If the ordinance is repealed, it would result in a huge waste of resources. The courts are already packed with marijuana prosecutions."
Tuesday's proposed resolution is the second step in an effort to overhaul the county's medical marijuana rules in place since 2006.
The board approved the first round of changes in February by limiting the number of dispensaries in unincorporated Sonoma County to nine.
Zane and Brown will need one additional vote to repeal the 2006 guidelines for cultivation and possession.
Advocates and patients said they will pack the supervisor chambers for Tuesday's meeting to argue against the new proposal.
"There's a lot of energy about it, there are a lot of emails flying around," said Robert Jacob, Sebastopol's vice mayor and founder of the nonprofit Peace In Medicine medical marijuana dispensary.
Tougher limits are more likely to harm patients than criminals, Jacob said.
"The people who are following the law are going to follow the law, and the people who are not aren't," Jacob said. "There are two types of people, and 30 plants to six plants isn't going to change that."
Zane said that the proposal takes aim at those who use the medical marijuana laws to get away with illegal drug cultivation and sales.
The 30-plant, three-pound limits were adopted in a resolution the supervisors passed in 2006 and was crafted with input from law enforcement and medical cannabis advocates.
Zane noted that the proposed resolution includes reference to a 2010 state Supreme Court decision, which she said makes it clear that "doctors ultimately will have the final say" how much marijuana a patient requires.
"I want to reassure people providing medical marijuana and those who need it, whatever their ailment is, there is support for that, absolutely," Zane said.
The ad hoc committee report on medical marijuana paints in broad strokes a picture of the marijuana trade's effect on crime and the environment in the county and state.
Marijuana-related arrests by the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office have steadily increased from 208 in 2006 to more than 500 in 2010, according to the report.
The Sheriff's Office spends $2 million each year investigating marijuana-related complaints and violence, the report said.
Sonoma County Sheriff Steve Freitas and District Attorney Jill Ravitch could not be reached Sunday for comment.
Pot cultivation pollutes the environment, represents 3 percent of electricity use in the state and has led to dangerous land poaching on private and public lands, according to the report.
But toughening rules and netting more arrests will not stem violence associated with the illegal drug trade, said medical cannabis advocates. And the change could bog down the courts with small-time marijuana cases.
"There's a belief that somehow the county will save money by making more people illegal, but that's going to cost us more money," Jacob said.
Jacob and others criticized the county for waiting until six days before the vote to alert medical cannabis supporters.
County staff sent an email Wednesday outlining the changes proposed to medical marijuana "stakeholders."
In addition to repealing the 2006 resolution, Zane and Brown are asking the supervisors to establish an ordinance that would prohibit the use of unoccupied residential buildings for marijuana cultivation.
The supervisors also want to establish a countywide marijuana task force modeled after the methamphetamine task force.
The memo prompted a flurry of emails, phone calls and discussions among medical marijuana supporters and users.
Defense attorney Omar Figueroa, who co-wrote the Repeal Cannabis Prohibition Act of 2012, said the process seemed intentionally secretive.
"To me, it sounds like they're trying to slide it in when people are at their busiest, they think people won't be paying attention," Figueroa said.
An array of people, from law enforcement to marijuana users, collaborated to help the county craft the guidelines that supervisors passed in 2006.
"When we worked to create the (2006) guidelines, we based it on science and doctor recommendations," Sivadas said. "There there was a whole scientific background on why 30 plants was chosen."
But Zane defended the county's process.
"Philosophically, we're going to have to agree to disagree," Zane said. "We vote on public policy every week and we don't always include stakeholders."
The supervisors' hearing on the proposal to repeal the 2006 resolution on medical marijuana possession and cultivation is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. Tuesday.
You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @jjpressdem.
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