Fresno County supervisors to weigh tougher marijuana rules

Carmen George, The Modesto Bee

Two revamped marijuana ordinance proposals — one that completely bans marijuana growing in Fresno County — will be before county supervisors on Tuesday.

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Both revisions are an effort to curtail the emergence of large, dangerous marijuana grows on the Valley floor that have been hotbeds for crime, officials say.

The other proposal limits growers to six mature, or 12 immature pot plants. Growing space also can't exceed 120 square feet within either a room of a single-family dwelling, or a detached, covered outdoor structure.

Some worry the former option — banning all marijuana growing — would infringe on the rights of those who consume marijuana for medical reasons, protected by California's medical marijuana law, Proposition 215.

"Obviously the sheriff would prefer zero plants," Undersheriff Steve Wilkins said of the two proposals. "Regardless of how you package it, it's (marijuana) a violation of federal law. But the other option is still a valuable tool and helps with large grows, where violence is coming from."

Stiffer penalties would apply for both options: misdemeanor charges, $1,000 fines per plant in excess of the maximum allowed, along with additional $100 fines per plant, per day, past a designated removal date.

The fines currently on the books are much lower, often several hundred dollars: "a slap on the hand compared to how much money is to be made," Wilkins said.

A pound of marijuana goes for about $1,200 in the Valley and $4,200 in Boston, where many Fresno-grown plants have been illegally shipped, Sheriff Margaret Mims said.

More than 530 marijuana farms were identified by deputies in Fresno County as of Nov. 6, but just 113 were removed. Several of the farms this summer were near elementary schools and amounted to thousands of plants.

The proposed 12-plant limit, with increased penalties, is modeled after Kern County's ordinance.

Their August, 2011 revamp had a big effect, said Chief Deputy Kevin Zimmermann with the Kern County Sheriff's Office.

In the months leading to the update, 46 marijuana farms were found on the Valley floor in Kern County by deputies in 2011, compared to less than 10 in 2012 after the new ordinance was in place.

"The merits of the ordinance were obvious," Zimmermann said. "Once the public was educated about how the ordinance was to be enforced, the numbers of Valley grows diminished significantly."

In September, supervisors supported the 12-plant proposal. But when time came for a second and final vote, more questions arose and staff was directed to go back to the drawing board.

"It didn't seem in the public interest for there to be a cannabis count of 10 or 11 or 12, when all of the marijuana can be a serious risk to our community," Supervisor Andreas Borgeas said.

Medical marijuana advocates have voiced strong opposition to the proposal to ban all marijuana growing.

Don Duncan, California director of Americans for Safe Access, wrote to supervisors on behalf of 1,000 members of his group who live in the county. He said while the state Supreme Court recently ruled Riverside could ban the distribution of medical marijuana from a wellness center, "the court arguably did not extend that discretion to the cultivation of medical cannabis (marijuana) by individual patients and their primary caregivers."

Both proposed ordinances would continue Fresno County's ban on medical marijuana dispensaries.

Sean Dwyer, executive director of California Herbal Relief Center, operated a medical marijuana dispensary in Fresno County until the ban took effect in 2012.

"Rather than allowing for legitimate access for patients, they cut everything off," Dwyer said. "And when you cut everything off, it will go to the black market, and that's what has happened."

Supervisors will look at both proposed ordinances on Tuesday. Their second and final vote will happen in the coming weeks. The Fresno County Sheriff's Office hopes a new ordinance will be on the books by February or March, Wilkins said, when marijuana eradications will start increasing.

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