California's medical pot law pits ailing growers vs. irate neighbors in Sacramento

10/24/2012 12:00 AM

10/28/2012 8:32 AM

State law says medical marijuana users can grow pot on their own property, but a growing number of California cities are telling them to keep it indoors.

Last week, the city of Sacramento became the latest municipality to declare pot gardens a community concern, citing issues including pungent aromas, robberies, shootings and other neighborhood disruption. The City Council directed staff to write an ordinance banning outdoor growing in residential areas.

The council action followed a tense hearing that drew emotional testimony from seriously ill marijuana users and exasperated neighbors.

"I've heard about their individual rights. What about my rights?" said Dennis Hunter, a retiree who has lived for 33 years in the same house in Natomas – only to be overwhelmed in the fall by a powerful odor from a neighbor's pot garden.

Hunter said his utility bills are going up as he runs his air conditioner rather than a whole house fan that sucks in cannabis smells.

"I'm deadly allergic to it," he said. "I run away every time I smell it."

Bette Braden, 60, offered a different perspective.

Braden grows pot in her Land Park yard with the permission of her landlord. She said she has had two hip replacement surgeries and suffers from Crohn's disease, an intestinal disorder. She called the city's planned action "the most callous thing I've ever heard of.

"I feel for the people at the council meeting who have had allergies to the smell," said Braden, who said she hasn't had complaints from neighbors. "But you know what? Perfume bothers me a lot. And I don't expect everyone not to wear perfume."

Marijuana advocacy groups have gone to court to challenge restrictions similar to the one proposed by Sacramento, saying they are trumped by California's 1996 Proposition 215 medical marijuana law and related 2003 legislation.

The issue is scheduled for a hearing next month in the 3rd District Court of Appeal. Eight medical users are suing over strict cultivation rules in Tehama County that plaintiffs say make it nearly impossible for many sick people to grow marijuana.

Upheld in Superior Court, Tehama's ban barred medicinal growing – both outdoor and indoor – on small lots within 100 feet of property lines and 1,000 feet of schools.

In addition to the Tehama case, cities and counties are awaiting a state Supreme Court ruling dealing with dispensaries, which may clarify how much they can regulate medical marijuana sellers and growers.

James Anthony, an Oakland lawyer representing medical marijuana clients, argues that compromise may be the best solution.

"Neighbors may have concerns about odors or public safety," Anthony said. "But patients have the rights to cultivate. Somehow you're going to have to balance those with reasonable regulation."

Sacramento City Council member Sandy Sheedy, who has pushed for the restrictions, said the city needs to act to protect its residents. She said the issue has gone from irritating pot smells to neighbors' very sense of security.

At last week's council hearing, Sheedy cited a police report on people with numerous marijuana plants loading a truck with the harvest near an elementary school – helped by a 3-year-old child.

Sheedy also mentioned a 2011 incident in which a Del Paso Heights resident shot and killed one of three burglars who jumped a fence to cut marijuana buds from dozens of plants. A day after the Sacramento council meeting, a man was arrested on suspicion of shooting at a former roommate trying to take some backyard plants in Citrus Heights.

Sacramento County Sheriff's Sgt. Jason Ramos said backyard grows have sprouted exponentially in the past year, often with multiple people on single properties appearing to grow far more than any reasonable medical need.

Ramos said too many neighborhood growers are trying to make money selling pot under the guise of medical marijuana. He said there are more gardens now that nearly 100 county dispensaries closed due to federal enforcement threats and local crackdowns.

"I don't think there has been any drop-off in demand. It's a matter of people creating supply," Ramos said.

Outdoor growing on residential lots has emerged as a contentious issue around the state.

In Elk Grove, where the city banned open-air pot cultivation in April, neighborhood complaints to code enforcement have resulted in five residents pulling up their plants and two growers being fined $715 each for nuisance violations. Four other cases are pending.

In Butte County, voters in June overturned cultivation restrictions that banned indoor and outdoor marijuana growing on half-acre lots or smaller and set growing restrictions for larger parcels.

And in Sonoma County, tensions over backyard growing boiled over in an aggressive police response. In September, local and federal officers in military gear set off flash grenades during raids on 32 residential gardens in a single Santa Rosa neighborhood.

Police said the raids targeted illegal gang and drug activity. Marijuana advocates protested that the sweeps also hit legitimate medical patients.

"The neighborhood was shell-shocked," said Dale Gieringer, California director of the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana laws.

Ryan Landers, a Sacramento medical marijuana advocate with advanced stage AIDS, argues that local governments should target bad-acting growers – not ailing patients.

Landers, 40, who says he needs large doses of cannabis to boost his appetite and quell searing pain, plants marijuana late in the growing season and ties his plants down sideways to keep them from growing over a residential fence.

He has worked with Sheedy on medical marijuana issues, and he seethed in his seat last week as the council member said medical users could simply grow indoors.

"When you grow inside, you have only six, seven or eight plants for yourself," she argued. "You're not growing a backyard full. If you have to buy a light, buy a light. I don't understand that the cost is so overwhelming you can't do this."

"These people don't understand what the hell they're talking about," Landers fumed. He explained that indoor plants produce a small fraction of the outdoor yield, even with multiple indoor growing cycles compared to one outdoor season.

Other advocates say indoor gardens cost hundreds to thousands of dollars to set up – with wiring, insulation and lights – and spike utility bills.

And Landers, who formerly grew indoors in an apartment, said that didn't help the neighborhood peace.

Pot-seeking intruders, he said, twice robbed him at gunpoint.

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