Sacramento County supervisors vote to ban outdoor marijuana gardens

04/22/2014 3:30 PM

04/23/2014 10:02 AM

Sacramento County supervisors on Tuesday unanimously voted to ban outdoor marijuana crops, joining a growing number of California cities and counties that have prohibited cultivation in response to safety and nuisance complaints.

Sheriff Scott Jones told supervisors that marijuana plants have increased throughout the county because of a lack of clarity in federal and state laws and inconsistent prosecution. County aides and law enforcement showed numerous aerial photos of reported grow sites, including open space near Rio Linda High School and the Cherry Island Soccer Complex.

“We’ve seen a profusion – an explosion – of marijuana grows,” Jones said.

The new restrictions would apply to unincorporated Sacramento County and likely take effect in mid-June. The city of Sacramento already bans outdoor cultivation in residential areas, while Elk Grove prohibits all outdoor marijuana growth.

Some advocates for medical marijuana said Tuesday that law enforcement overstated the risks associated with marijuana growth, though others were sympathetic with the county’s concerns about large grow sites. They asked supervisors to preserve the ability of patients to grow plants for personal use. Supervisors on Tuesday asked county staff to return May 28 with proposed restrictions for indoor marijuana grows specifically limited to medical use.

Local governments have moved quickly to regulate growth after a favorable state court ruling in November upheld their ability to ban cultivation despite the state’s 1996 initiative legalizing marijuana for medical use.

The ruling by the Sacramento-based 3rd District Court of Appeal, upholding a ban in the city of Live Oak, paved the way for similar ordinances across California. Most bans have focused on outdoor cultivation, while Fresno County has gone the furthest by prohibiting outdoor and indoor medical marijuana grows, according to the California chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

Sacramento County Supervisor Roberta MacGlashan introduced separate indoor and outdoor ordinances Tuesday to ban marijuana crops, saying she has received many complaints from residents. In addition to safety and quality of life issues, marijuana grows create undue demands on the environment, including high water use in a drought, she said.

Supervisors unanimously approved the ban on outdoor cultivation. But MacGlashan said she agreed to continue the indoor ordinance discussion because she thinks a majority of board members prefer regulation instead of an outright ban, even though she does not agree with that approach.

The board in 2011 effectively banned medical marijuana dispensaries after as many as 99 such establishments had opened in the unincorporated county.

The nebulous nature of state and federal laws makes prosecution of marijuana cultivation difficult, Jones said. The county will rely largely on code enforcement officers to police its new ordinance, citing growers for civil infractions with backup by sheriff’s deputies when needed.

Dozens of plants can be found in residential backyards as well as in more remote areas, law-enforcement officials said.

Lt. John Laughlin of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife said many of the marijuana grows are run by organized crime, and it’s not hard to figure out why: A single plant can yield $1,500 worth of marijuana in California, and much more in other parts of the country. The drug trafficking task force he serves on found a cornfield in Sacramento County with $52 million in marijuana, he said.

Marijuana crops lead to violence as people try to steal and protect them, said Michael Neves, an assistant chief deputy district attorney. The District Attorney’s Office is actively prosecuting 10 people on homicide charges involving marijuana, he said.

“It’s out of control,” said Neves, who said in late summer some neighborhoods will be permeated with the skunk-like smell of freshly harvested marijuana.

Neves pointed to the case of Kelly McClurg, a 60-year-old Wilton man who was shot and killed when two men stole his indoor pot grow in 2012. Three men were convicted in the case.

Medical marijuana advocates told supervisors Tuesday the county should take action against large growers who engage in criminal enterprise but not restrict the ability of patients to cultivate plants for their own needs.

“We agree with pretty much everything you said today,” said Bob Bowerman of the Sacramento chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

The debate on indoor growing will possibly hinge on how much marijuana is reasonable for a patient to have. Ron Mullins of Sacramento NORML told supervisors that prosecutor Neves’ assertion that 2 pounds was enough to last a patient a year was far off the mark. He estimated that he smoked 51/2 pounds of marijuana in a year.

“No way – that’s too much,” said Supervisor Susan Peters.

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