Growing Pains

In February, when local medical marijuana advocates were able to turn back a proposed zoning ordinance that would have banned all outdoor medicinal cannabis cultivation in Shasta County, it was a watershed moment. In less than a month, activists collected more than 13,000 signatures—twice the number required—to place a referendum on the county supervisors’ proposed ordinance on November’s ballot.

Are the times they a changin,’ even in traditionally conservative Shasta County, where 60 percent of the electorate voted against Prop. 215, the Compassionate Use Act, in 1996? Longtime Redding resident Rick Arons, a local hydroponics store owner who was instrumental in the petition drive, is cautiously optimistic.

“The second they wrote an ordinance that did that [ban outdoor cultivation], I knew I could get the public involved as well as the 215 crowd,” he said, adding the caveat that “you can’t expect 50 years of change overnight.”

Attorney Eric Allen Berg, who has been practicing law in Redding for 29 years and counts medical marijuana patients among his clients, said he was “surprised” the petitioners were able to gain enough signatures in the short time allotted.

Shasta County Supervisor Les Baugh, chair of the Shasta County Board of Supervisors was a leading proponent of the ban on outdoor cultivation, but conceded defeat, at least until the election.

“Ultimately, it is extremely fair for the public to weigh in on this very important question,” he replied via email. “I hope the community will support the ordinance approved by the board of supervisors.”

“The existing ordinance will remain in effect until the vote is determined,” he added, “and will automatically continue if the new ordinance is shot down.”

In the meantime, the successful petition drive has given medical marijuana patients and their caregivers the right to grow cannabis outdoors at least one more year, within existing guidelines. With planting season upon us, it seems like a reasonable time to revisit those guidelines, which remain a crazy quilt of Shasta County’s existing medical marijuana zoning ordinance, state law and common sense.

The best place to get the lowdown on the existing ordinance, which was crafted in 2011, is Shasta County’s website [http://www.co.shasta.ca.us]. On the Planning Division’s webpage, you’ll find the entire ordinance, as well as FAQs and a fact sheet. Perhaps the most important thing to note about the ordinance is that it only speaks to the size of outdoor marijuana gardens and not to the number of plants that can be grown.

Exactly how many plants you can grow remains a bone of contention within the medical marijuana community as well as law enforcement. According to SB 420, the guidelines established by the Legislature in 2004, patients and/or their caregivers can possess 6 mature plants or 12 immature plants without fear of arrest or criminal prosecution. However, a 2008 legal case known as People vs. Kelly declared those limits unconstitutional.

This has led to the mistaken belief that there are no limits on the number of plants that may be grown, evidenced by some medical marijuana doctors, who for an additional fee, issue recommendations that supposedly permit patients to grow up to 99 plants. Not so according to California NORML, which notes that patients can be arrested and prosecuted for exceeding SB 420 guidelines. The pro-marijuana organization recommends that patients “continue following the SB 420 guidelines.”

Arons believes that’s sound advice.

“My advice is not to exceed 18 plants [per parcel],” he said. That’s based on SB 420 guidelines of 3 perscriptions per parcel and 6 mature plants per patient. He believes six fully mature plants should provide enough medicine for most patients. Arons operated a medical marijuana collective in Redding until the city shuttered all dispensaries last year, and said that with just 12 plants, he was able to make enough edible cannabis for 6000 patients.

“I ain’t into the greed,” he said. Arons was referring to growers, many of whom come from out of the area, who appear to believe People vs. Kelly permits them to grow an unlimited number of plants. “Those are the guys causing the problems.”

He’ll get no argument on that score from county zoning officials charged with enforcing the ordinance.

“We all agree that there’s a medical value to it, but how do you get there?” asked Dale Fletcher, director of the Shasta County Building Division. Code enforcement is based on public complaints, and Fletcher said that hundreds of citations are issued every year. Large grows with hundreds of plants are wreaking havoc on the environment and the public has taken notice. “It’s a fairly significant issue, just because we have so many resources that are being wiped out.”

He said the most common violations include improper grading, raw sewage dumped on the ground and into streams, and wells being dug and electricity hooked up without permits.

“The biggest thing is the drought,” he added. “Water theft is going crazy. We’re a month away from that.”

Shasta County code enforcement officer Mark Pelote cited garbage as another common violation. “You get garbage dumping in the woods and abandoned vehicles,” he said. “These people show up, they leave and they leave their garbage behind.”

For patients who wish to grow without being hassled by code enforcement, it all boils down to following the state and local guidelines and common sense, according to Fletcher.

“Be kind to your neighbors, keep it low key,” he said. “Be environmentally friendly, don’t use pesticides and chemicals, reuse your water, don’t just let it drain.” He also recommended turning in growers who flagrantly violate the ordinance to code enforcement.

For patients who want to stick to the ordinance but can’t decipher the somewhat complex regulations, he said, “Just give me a call. You don’t want to find out after the fact.”

His phone number is (530)-225-5761.

R.V. Scheide has been a northern California journalist for more than 20 years. He appreciates your comments and story ideas.

R.V. Scheide

R.V. Scheide has been a northern California journalist for more than 20 years. He appreciates your comments and story ideas. He can be emailed at RVScheide@anewscafe.com.

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