Pot plot in foothills sparks high anxiety

August 27, 2004

Niesha Lofing, Sacramento Bee

The owner of a local medical marijuana store has begun growing the product at his Newcastle home, inciting reefer madness among his neighbors.

Some residents are furious that Richard Marino, owner of Capitol Compassionate Care in Roseville, has about 200 marijuana plants in a backyard plot protected by barbed wire, 24-hour guards and bright lights.

Neighbors told Placer County officials recently they're angry they weren't notified of Marino's plans and they fear a drop in property values and a rise in crime.

Officials, however, explained Marino is protected by state law governing medical marijuana and by the residential-agricultural zoning of his five acres.

'We can't view it any differently than if it were any other crop,' said county Supervisor Harriet White.

White said she is sympathetic and thinks Californians were deceived when they voted for Proposition 215, which legalized medicinal marijuana.

'I don't think that the voters really thought there was going to be medical marijuana farms,' she said.

Tiffany Mosburg, whose four-acre property abuts the back of Marino's, has limited her child's outside activities because of the pot farm. While Marino's marijuana crop is surrounded by fencing, there is no fence separating his land from Mosburg's.

'My son isn't allowed to go in the back part of our property anymore,' said Mosburg. 'He used to ride his little trucks back there, and he and his buddies would play wilderness and adventure make-believe games, but I can't chance it anymore.'

Frustrated with the county's lack of action, she and others have written legislators and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Supervisor White said she, too, has written lawmakers.

Marino said he is the listed caregiver for more than 1,000 medicinal marijuana users, so state law lets him grow as many as six mature or 12 immature plants for each patient - more if prescribed by a doctor.

'I'm only growing a tenth of what I could be,' he said.

Passed by California voters in 1996, Proposition 215 allows qualified patients to use medical marijuana and protects physicians who prescribe it from criminal prosecution.

In 2003, the Legislature broadened the definition of a medical marijuana caregiver and allows for the drug's collective cultivation. In Marino's case, the new law allows him to grow medical marijuana for people who list him as their caregiver and to sell it to them to recoup expenses.

The law also let cities and counties adopt guidelines concerning the growing and distribution of medical marijuana. As a result, many cities in the Sacramento area have adopted ordinances restricting the location and operations of marijuana dispensaries.

Some governments adopted measures to govern the growing of marijuana. San Diego has a law mandating medical marijuana be grown indoors, said Deputy City Attorney Lisa Foster.

'People were scared that if the plants weren't kept in a structure, it could get into hands of kids,' Foster said.

Placer County, however, has not adopted any such ordinances or guidelines.

Marino opened the Roseville dispensary in January, and the pot grown at his home in Newcastle will be sold at the store.

Deputy District Attorney Dave Tellman hinted his office may be looking into the situation.

'Any determination of whether (Marino) is or isn't within the law will have to be after the results of investigations into the circumstances of his possession,' Tellman said.

Sheriff's Department officials said medicinal marijuana crops have popped up more frequently, and deputies are aware of them for safety reasons.

'It's a frustrating issue for us,' said Lt. George Malim, 'but our hands are tied because of the laws.'

State regulations remain at odds with federal law, which says it is illegal to possess or grow marijuana for any purpose.

But two recent rulings by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals have found that federal authorities do not have the power to go after noncommercial medical marijuana operations confined within the state. The U.S. Department of Justice is appealing the cases to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Until the Supreme Court makes its determination, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration abides by federal law, said Richard Meyer, special agent at the DEA's San Francisco division.

'We still feel we can initiate investigations,' Meyer said.

Marino's marijuana farm and dispensary are illegal, he said.

'He's cultivating, distributing, possessing,' Meyer said. 'He's breaking federal law big time. He's definitely in harm's way.'

Standing in his back yard this week, Marino pointed to his garden of ill-repute.

'There it is. That's what all the fuss is about,' he said.

Fencing topped with barbed wire surrounds row upon row of marijuana plants, some skinny and more than 5 feet tall, others short and stout.

A drip system hangs between the plants, pumping two gallons of water an hour through the garden, which sits near a creek.

The marijuana was planted July 1, about a month after Marino purchased the property.

Marino said the fracas over the farm is going to force him to put in more security measures.

'My intention was to grow inexpensive medical marijuana for patients who come to the center,' he said. 'This is going to end up increasing the cost for patients.'

Marino said he purchased the property on a private lane for its farming classification and location out of the public eye.

'I'm not going to move. I have an investment in this thing,' he said. Marino said he's unsure if he will replant next year.

Ben and Gloria Padilla, who live next door, said if Marino doesn't move, they might.

'This man has a Class I drug growing right next to our property,' Gloria Padilla said. 'It's upsetting and makes us apprehensive.'

Ben Padilla said there are constant reminders that marijuana is cultivated next door. Surveillance lights shine at night, security guards patrol property lines and the faint, skunky scent of marijuana drifts to their yard.

'We agree with the concept, but there needs to be guidelines in place,' he said.

Michael Vitiello, a professor at McGeorge School of Law, said the situation exemplifies the problems with California's medical marijuana laws.

'One of the big gaps in the law is where (medicinal marijuana) is supposed to come from,' Vitiello said. 'We need to address how we are going to make a safe supply of medical marijuana available without forcing neighbors to have marijuana plants next to their yards.'

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