Supes explore pot impacts

July 27, 2006

Mike A\'Dair, The Willits News

The invisible elephant in the room became slightly more visible during a Board of Supervisors workshop on marijuana held in Ukiah on Monday.

The meeting however, was mostly informational and, other than directing County Counsel Jeanine Nadel to explore various avenues of the law as it applies to marijuana, the supervisors took no action.

COMMET Commander Rusty Noe stated that so far this year, his two-man team has confiscated and destroyed 125,000 marijuana plants. Noe said that that number is 50 percent higher than last year's number at the same date, and that the number in 2005 was fifty percent higher than 2004. In a separate conversation in the hall during a break, Noe confirmed that so far this year, seizure of marijuana plants in 2006 is double the number seized in 2004 for the same date.

However, District Attorney Norman Vroman reiterated that he believes that, at a maximum, law enforcement in the county is only seizing 10 percent of the total plants grown.

When asked what the total number of plants grown in the county might be, or what the cash valuation of the crop is, Noe would venture no guess. "That's impossible to tell," he said.

Third District Supervisor Hal Wagenet asked Assistant Director of the Dept. of Public Health Dan Taylor if he thought that people who were growing marijuana, and who might otherwise consider coming in under the county's medical marijuana card program, declined to do so because they feared that information gathered by the county might be shared with state and federal governments.

"I think that's a reasonable assumption to take," Taylor said.

Acting Sheriff Kevin Broin said that he didn't have enough deputies to enforce federal prohibitions against growing marijuana in this county. "We would never have enough law enforcement officers to take care of a problem the size of this," Broin said. He said that his department does not investigate marijuana growing on its own initiative, but does investigate growing operations in response to calls for service from the public. "Very little growing activity is reported," Broin said.

"So in essence would you say that a lot of people out here are developing into a separate culture that is taking matters into its own hands?" asked Wagenet.

"I'd have to agree with that," Broin said. "And I don't think it's anything new. I think it's been happening for quite a while."

When asked by Maria Brook, co-chair of the Mendocino County Medical Marijuana Citizens Advisory Board, if it would be helpful if medical marijuana growers invited sheriff's officers up to their grow sites early on to introduce themselves and their gardens to the deputies, and to affirm their legality, Broin said no.

"It would be better for neighbors started to work together," Broin said. "I recommend you develop some kind of thing where people talk with each other to make sure that what you are doing is legal, and that you all know what each of you is doing, then we won't be called."

Norm Vroman described the c`ounty's "liberal" approach to prosecuting marijuana. He reminded the supervisors that he and former Sheriff Tony Craver had created guidelines to dealing with marijuana growing in 1999, in response to the 1996 statewide passage of proposition 215, which decriminalized marijuana growing for medical purposes.

The County's guidelines are that growers are confined to a hundred square foot canopy (10 feet by 10 feet) or that they may possess as much as two pounds of processed pot for sale, and that they must have a valid medical marijuana card.

He said that the guidelines are only guidelines but that "if someone exceeds the guidelines, it means we're going to take a closer look at it."

"People are not breaking the law if they are growing medical marijuana without a card," Vroman said. When asked what kinds of penalties are being leveled by courts at landowners where "big grows" have been found, Vroman said, " It comes down to the judges. It's been a long time since I've seen anybody go to state prison for cultivation or transportation of marijuana."

Armand Brindt, Prevention Services Manager with the County's Alcohol and Other Drug Program, talked about drug abuse treatment issues. "Marijuana is the most widely used illicit drug," he said. According to Dept. of Public Health information, forty percent of high school students have used it by the 11th grade. The statistical perception of use is one hundred percent. That means that, by the 11th grade, all high school students think that all of their peers have smoked it. 88 percent of students by the 11th grade believe that marijuana is easy or very easy to obtain.

Brindt said that the THC content of modern pot dwarfs that of earlier decades. "Back in the 1960s and 70s, the pot then had a THC content of one to three percent. Today's pot has THC levels of between 15 and 20 percent. There's an enormous difference," Brindt said. He added that, despite the potency and widespread use of the drug, marijuana is not the number one teen threat. "The biggest teen drug is alcohol," Brindt reminded the board.

Karen Wandrei, Director of the Mendocino County Youth Project, told the board that many adults today believe that marijuana is harmless and even benign, because of the anti-marijuana propaganda of the past. Wandrei named the 1930s movie Reefer Madness, which she said clearly overstated the dangers of the drug. "People saw that movie and then tried the drug and said, 'We've been lied to'," Wandrei said. "And so they disregarded everything."

Carol Mordhorst, outgoing director of the Dept. of Public Health, said that smoke from marijuana "may be a carcinogen" and that breathing secondhand marijuana smoke "may lead to childhood asthma, which is on the rise." She said that her department has received many calls from people who have questions about the effects of pesticides that might be used on a particular crop of marijuana, or about the health effects on ingesting any fungi that could be growing on the plant. Mordhorst said that her department tells people that "We don't have expertise in that area."

She also noted that, from the perspective of Animal Care and Control, the county is having a problem with pit bulls, one of the fiercest and most vicious of dogs. "We've seen an enormous increase in pit bulls," Mordhorst said. "People keep them in their gardens as a deterrence factor, and then, at the end of the season, they let them go wild." "The fact that we provide treatment for marijuana use on one end of the building, and that we issue medical marijuana cards on the other end, has been interesting," Mordhorst stated. "With the acceptance of marijuana, it is a significant struggle to convince young people to stay away from it."

Carol Park, Services Director of the Mendocino County Family Court, said that her court issued a policy statement last year concerning the use of medical marijuana by parents. The statement says that marijuana use, regardless of the presence of an authorized 215 card, will be seen as potentially influencing a parent's ability to provide adequate care for a child.

"We recognized that we had a number of young people coming in who were telling us, 'I've got a medical marijuana card, and therefore it is okay for me to be stoned all day, and I can still parent."

County Assessor/Clerk/Recorder Marsha Wharff told the supes that pot was having an impact on her department as well. "We don't send appraisers out into the field during harvest time, because it's too dangerous," she said. Her sentiments were echoed by Wes Foreman, head of the Probation Dept. "There is a general concern that sending our people out in the county to supervise, or just to do their jobs especially in the rural part of the county is very dangerous," Foreman said. "Therefore we have an armed probation staff, which many counties don't do. And we send our guys out in pairs," he said.

Contacted after the meeting had concluded, Wagenet said that the meeting was "mostly informational. One interesting things was that the County Counsel opined that the Board of Supervisors could define the prosecutorial level how many plants you could grow before it became illegal. Norm Vroman didn't want to hear that but we invited Nadel to give us some expansion on that thought."

"Nobody bemoans the medical aspect," said the Third District Supervisor. "And nobody denies that there is a for-profit aspect to the business. But where the line is, that's the difficult part."

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