California Weed

El Dorado ordinance fuels outcry over pot-growing boom

Members of the El Dorado County Sheriff's Department dismantle a marijuana garden in a remote area of El Dorado county in 2009.
Members of the El Dorado County Sheriff's Department dismantle a marijuana garden in a remote area of El Dorado county in 2009. Bee file

The tense public hearing was three hours in Tuesday when a friend pushed Joyce Hall in her walker to address the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors. The frail, 100-pound woman rose, grasped the lectern with both hands and began to cry.

“You’re going to kill us,” said Hall, 57, a Garden Valley resident and medical marijuana patient who suffers from a rare immune disorder that causes severe weight loss. For the past year, a caregiver has been growing 12 marijuana plants on Hall’s property under a September 2013 county ordinance that permits individual patients to grow 200 square feet of plants in fenced off plots away from neighbors’ property lines.

But El Dorado County Sheriff John D’Agostini, who originally supported the policy, now says the county’s marijuana ordinance was a “big mistake.”

The sheriff blames the ordinance – intended as a compassionate action for local medical marijuana patients – for broadcasting a “weed friendly” message. He says it has attracted criminal profiteers who are ripping up public and private lands and cultivating hundreds of thousands of plants on a scale vastly exceeding county guidelines.

The problem is so acute, D’Agostini told supervisors, that total pot seizures by narcotics officers this year would be enough to provide “every man, woman and child” in the county of 182,000 residents with 1.7 pounds of marijuana each. The sheriff said the county’s marijuana ordinance – which allows a maximum of three patients growing 600 square feet of plants on rural properties – must be repealed.

Supervisors decided otherwise, voting unanimously to further study the county ordinance – but not repeal it. The Tuesday afternoon hearing revealed the intense challenges faced by a Sierra foothills county boasting some of California’s most lush real estate for furtive marijuana cultivation.

The marijuana cultivation fight extends to counties such as Sacramento and Fresno, which banned pot gardens outright. The American Civil Liberties Union is suing over the Fresno ban after marijuana advocates unsuccessfully challenged another pot-growing ban in the Sutter County town of Live Oak.

El Dorado County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Norma Santiago urged keeping intact rules to permit small-scale growing, saying the county didn’t want to criminalize hundreds of seriously ill patients lawfully operating under the guidelines. She called for redrafting the county ordinance to clearly spell out that authorities will target rogue cultivators violating the limits.

“I don’t know how you can repeal an ordinance without having a backup plan,” Santiago said. She added: “If we’re saying we’re not allowing commercial (marijuana) grows in El Dorado County, let’s buck up and enforce that.”

The board’s decision was influenced by impassioned testimony from medical marijuana users who packed the board chambers and the hallway outside. It turned on the emotions of people such as Joyce Hall.

Weeks earlier, Hall said she had her caregiver rip out her plants at midharvest in fear of arrest if the county removed official sanction for her small fenced garden.

“Go after the bad apples. Go after the illegal growers,” Hall implored the board “But please don’t repeal this. Stand up for those of us who are too weak to fight for ourselves. I don’t want to die as a criminal.”

Supervisor Ron Briggs had put the matter on the agenda after the sheriff and county building inspectors reported an upsurge in marijuana growing, from oversized backyard plantations to vast backcountry operations with cavernous greenhouses and processing rooms.

D’Agostini said there has been one pot-related homicide this year, one attempted murder and five cases of assault with a deadly weapon. He said there have been 60 cultivation arrests since January – with seven out of 10 suspects coming from other states or elsewhere in California.

“It’s really an epidemic of marijuana cultivation in this county,” Briggs said, echoing the sheriff. “We wanted to help the patients. But we stuck a sign out and said, ‘We’re open for business.’ ”

Briggs’ assertion was supported by Placerville resident Adam Anderson, who told of a neighbor growing 50 marijuana plants “right over the fence from my children’s play set” and furiously rebuffing Anderson when he complained. Anderson said he was so unnerved he put his house up for sale at well below market value.

“This is not about the virtues of marijuana,” Anderson said. “This is about aggressive, threatening people operating in our county.”

Cancer survivor Bonnie Ember, 60, a filmmaker and former competitive skier, said she has closely followed the county’s rules in growing a marijuana garden at her mountainous home in Swansboro Country, a subdivision north of Camino. But she said pot scofflaws are threatening the liberties of legitimate patients.

“People went out and rented 5-acre parcels and they planted 99 plants,” Ember said. “You’re going to attract the evil eye when you have 99 plants worth $5,000 each. That’s what the problem is: too much greed.”

Yet Ember implored supervisors not to strip away her permission to cultivate her medicine.

“Those guerrilla grows upset me, too,” Ember said. “But please don’t demonize cannabis. And please don’t put us in with the dark side.”

Dave Pratt, a winery owner and former county planning commissioner, said El Dorado County has been a prime marijuana growing region for years because the local topography and climate that work so well with wine grapes are especially suited for marijuana.

Pratt questioned the sheriff’s premise that illicit cultivators are flocking to the county because of the county’s limited growing ordinance. He said the influx may have more to do with the likelihood that California will have a 2016 vote to legalize marijuana for recreational use, following successful legalization initiatives in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Washington, D.C.

“I believe people are coming to get here ahead of the gold rush,” Pratt said.

Supervisor Shiva Frentzen was also skeptical the ordinance was causing the proliferation. After a county building inspector displayed a Google satellite photo of a massive marijuana garden in the mountains, Frentzen noted that the image was captured in August 2013 – a month before the county put its growing rules into effect.

A particularly pointed exchange took place when Supervisor Ron Mikulaco questioned the assurances of a county prosecutor who said his office doesn’t target small-scale marijuana growers, an apparent suggestion that they wouldn’t face charges if the ordinance is repealed.

Deputy District Attorney Worth Dikeman said his office won’t bring cases against growers with 2 pounds of processed marijuana or less, with outdoor gardens of 200 square feet or smaller or with indoor gardens containing 20 mature plants or fewer. But Dikeman said prosecutors reserved the right to bring cases against anyone selling marijuana for a profit.

Mikulaco pressed him: “If someone is working within the framework of this (county marijuana) ordinance, are they a criminal?”

“They’re not a criminal until they are prosecuted,” Dikeman answered.

That prompted about 20 medical marijuana patients and advocates to bolt, in fury, out of the boardroom.

Call The Bee’s Peter Hecht, (916) 326-5539.