By Michael S. Green
As medical cannabis patients and social users turn their attention toward adult-use legalization in 2016, Fresno County continues to preach the gospel of pot prohibition. The county’s ban on cannabis cultivation, both indoors and outdoors, took effect in February 2014. Now supervisors are planning a “joint meeting”—their words, not mine—with officials from the 15 cities in Fresno County, and marijuana will top the agenda. The cities will likely be asked to adopt the county’s zero-tolerance approach, which features a one-two punch of on-the-spot plant rips by sheriff’s deputies (aka “summary abatement”) and fines of $1,000 per plant. Nearly $2 million in cannabis fines were imposed last year, but the county has spent more on legal fees than it has collected so far.
No date has been set for the county’s anti-pot summit, which was announced at the Feb. 10 board meeting. Supervisors and Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims will be preaching to the choir because hundreds of large-scale cannabis gardens sprout up each year. That upsets law enforcement and public officials, if only because local residents can and do complain about nuisance odors, crime and other problems. (The county ban arose after complaints from Squaw Valley residents.) The City of Fresno, which banned outdoor cultivation in 2011, banned indoor gardens last March at the county’s urging.
Caught in the crossfire are patients who grow and use medical cannabis in compliance with Prop 215 and Senate Bill 420, only to find out that Sheriff Mims and her deputies don’t enforce those state laws. Instead, she and the board concocted Ordinance 14-001, which declares cannabis gardens to be public nuisances, like junk cars and overgrown lots, but with a separate system of heavy fines and enforcement procedures. If you are expecting fair notice to abate a code violation, don’t hold your breath.
Fresno County is in a perpetual (and unlawful) state of cannabis emergency, so plants typically get ripped without advance notice or property inspection warrants. In two marathon meetings held last fall, supervisors imposed fines ranging from $1 to $316,000, even though the plants were pulled—or absent, in two cases—when the citations were issued. More than 70 arrests were made.
Fast-forward to 2016: Legalization will fix all this, right? That’s not a given. Several ballot measures are competing for attention and campaign funds, and cultivation remains a hot-button issue. Another wild card is the state legislature, which has stalled or ignored cannabis regulations for the past decade. The looming specter of adult-use legalization could finally spur action on medical cannabis regulations, but cities and counties like Fresno will fight like hell to make sure that local governments can opt out. Because medical cannabis dispensaries are banned throughout Fresno County, it is unlikely that retail sales of adult-use cannabis will take place unless local bans are preempted by the new law.
However, it is not all bad news for Prop 215 patients. Two lawsuits challenging the county ban are pending in the Fifth District Court of Appeals, including one filed by the American Civil Liberties Union. The City and County of Fresno both face lawsuits on grounds they violated environmental laws, and those cases should go to trial this spring. In November, the county board rescinded a $43,000 fine imposed on a Del Rey patient and her mother last March, and several other fine appeals are in the pipeline.
On the political front, the Fresno Cannabis Association now meets at 6 p.m. Thursdays at the Hashtag (1298 N. Wishon Ave.), with plans to hold a “Seeds of Change” march in April.
Michael S. Green is a member of the Fresno Cannabis Association. For more info, visit www.fresnocannabis.org, follow Fresno Cannabis on Facebook and Twitter, or call 559-270-1411.