MMJ clinic halt renewed as DEA rumor clears grows

June 23, 2008

Kevin L. Hoover, The Arcata Eye

CITY HALL – The City Council last week renewed a moratorium on new medical cannabis dispensary approvals, extending it for 10 months and 15 days as citizens continued to press for fresh regulation of Arcata’s burgeoning marijuana industry.

Meanwhile, the cannabis community was abuzz with rumors that the federal Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) was poised to swoop down on Humboldt and Arcata with a small army of agents, ostensibly to clear out dispensaries and grow houses in massive raids. [Note: Operation Southern Sweep, which commenced Tuesday, June 24, was led by the FBI and focused on what a spokesman said was a single criminal enterprise. No medical marijuana facilities were raided. – Ed.]

Dispensary suspension
The City Council hearing on the dispensary moratorium extension attracted diverse comment from community members, including dispensary operators and skeptical citizens.

Arcata iCenter manager Tim Littlefield noted the recent state Supreme Court decision which found SB420-defined limits on amounts of cannabis possessed by patients unconstitutional. He said any attempts to regulate patients’ personal grows “in any form” illegally amend Prop 215 without state voter approval.
The Planning Commission is considering reducing 215 grow sizes to 50 square feet from the current 99 because that amount of space is considered sufficient for an individual to cultivate sufficient medicine. Cannabis which exceeds personal needs is often sold to dispensaries such as the iCenter and The Humboldt Cooperative (THC), which have admitted making purchases from residential grows.

Littlefield sought to protect his business’s supply source, calling for the council and Planco to “table all discussion in regards to personal medical cannabis.” He mentioned “several relevant cases that are citable that would cause lawsuits and cause the City  to pay heavy reparations to patients that have been harassed,” including “triple damages.”

Another dispensary operator, Humboldt Medical Supply Director Eric Heimstadt, contradicted Littlefield. He said the court decision is irrelevant to Arcata’s approach, which is based on public safety, specifically fire prevention.
Heimstadt cited minutes of previous meetings in which the City Council asked the Planco to allow dispensaries to grow on site, which he said the commission “totally ignored.” He also said the Planco had ignored information HMS had provided that delineate mitigations for on-site cultivation.

LindaAnne Cummings of Americans for Safe Access said the Planco’s discussions were “polarized, off balance and completely disconnected” and incomprehensible to citizens. She excoriated the commission for ignoring council direction, saying that it had “publicly disrespected” the council and medical cannabis community. HMS reps have previously called for the dismissal of planning commissioners who have countered council directives.
Cummings said the grow house problem is being leveraged to put cannabis dispensaries out of business. She said some restrictions featured in the “Nip It In The Bud” petition are “not legal or ethical.”

HMS attorney Greg Allen cited “complete and pitiful failures of the Planning Commission,” foremost of which  was ignoring what he called HMS’s “vested permit” to grow marijuana at its Eight Street facility. He said cannabis dispensaries can’t be considered medical offices, and that HMS’s on-site growing isn’t agriculture and shouldn’t be banned downtown.

Allen said HMS would “with great regret” file a petition for a writ of Mandamus and damage claim against the City this week. “We have to file, we just don’t have another option,” Allen said.

Grow house neighbor Wade DeLashmutt urged extension of the moratorium and a cap on dispensaries.  Grow house neighbor Robin Hashem also wanted the moratorium renewed and said the “Nip It” petition now has 381 signatories. She said the SB420 decision would likely be appealed, but that it doesn’t rule out zoning-oriented limits on grows.

Following public testimony, the council unanimously approved the extension of Interim Ordinance No. 1378 for 10 months and 15 days. The ordinance halts approvals of new cannabis dispensaries for that period, but will lapse when new standards for medical marijuana are adopted by the City – with one exception.
It will remain in effect in areas of the City which lie within the Coastal Zone, since the Coastal Commission, which has jurisdiction in those areas, must review the standards and sign off on them before they may be implemented.
As it happens, the single dispensary application now pending with the Community development department happens to lie within the Coastal Zone. The applicant is Patricia A. Sarlas of McKinleyville, who wishes to open “the Health Center” at 389 H St., a residential home located at Samoa Boulevard and H Street.

Converting the home to a business would require a building permit to enable a change of occupancy from residential to commercial use, plus certain structural modifications.

The bust that wasn’t

Rumors have been rife since early June that the DEA is hovering in the area, ready to raid local dispensaries and/or grow houses. On June 6, out of an abundance of caution, the booming, 6,000-patient The Humboldt Cooperative dispensary closed its front office for the day.

The rumors hit some a of crescendo last week with anonymous and unverified online reports that up to 50 federal vehicles were parked at the Red Lion Inn in Eureka. “The rumors are true,” reported the widely-read Humboldt Herald blog, under a headline declaring, “Massive DEA raids planned for Humboldt.”

Some blog commenters attributed the impending enforcement action to recent publicity about Arcata’s cannabis issues in national newspapers and cable TV news.

“It’s absolutely not true,” said Casey McEnry, DEA spokesperson. She said the agency was aware that there was “some kind of pandemonium, if you will, of a ‘surge’ of DEA agents.”

The agency routinely operates in the region, including Humboldt, McEnry said. “We’re there all the time,” she said. “You just don’t always know where.”
Right now, according to McEnry, the DEA has personnel working with the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office on aerial observation training. “But not by the hundreds,” she said. The raid rumors, she suggested, may have been fueled by the DEA presence in the area for that operation.

Grows, interrupted  

Against the backdrop of looming City regulation, neighbor militancy, media fanfare and DEA-tinged paranoia, distinct changes in behavior were observed at suspected residential grow houses around town.

Sunny Brae residents reported an increase in vehicular comings-and-goings, especially late at night. On one street, the night moves were accompanied by sounds of labored activity, as though a large volume of items were being loaded and moved.

In the Bloomfield neighborhood, some suspected grow houses got an appearance upgrade, including newly mowed lawns.

A resident reported that one house, which is usually inert during the day but often has signs of activity in the early morning hours, was noisy with “the sound of glass jars and plastic tubs being moved around the garage” for about six hours.

The resident reported an unusual increase in stray dogs and pedestrians wearing backpacks. A large pickup truck reportedly made repeated trips to the neighborhood, with numerous plastic bags in its bed.

In the nearby Greenview neighborhood, a resident reported some four suspected grow houses “emptied out” and sporting a whole new look, with doors open and previously closed curtains thrown wide.

“Everything’s opened up. They’re acting like they live there,” a resident said.
On Jackson Ranch Road, a popular dumping site, marijuana trim and used soil were left strewn about the roadside. Arcata Bottom protector Ted Halstead said the dope dumpage has become quite common of late.

Back to the Planco  

Following consideration of the proposed Trillium Creek subdivision’s Planned Development Permit, the Planning Commission will re-approach medical marijuana land use standards.

Among the regulations in play are a possible cap on dispensaries in Arcata, limits on dispensary grow area to 250 square feet, residency requirements for patients, signage standards, limits on hours of operation, reduction in 215 patient residential grows to 50 square feet, a ban on “cooperative” or clustered patient grows and more.

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