It was Dec. 7, Pearl Harbor day, when the sheriff and the feds convinced Fresno County to ban medical marijuana dispensaries.
The bomb was dropped by the Board of Supervisors on a packed house of collective operators and patients, but it wasn’t a surprise. The same board banned outdoor cultivation in September, but a judge stayed enforcement until Nov. 30 so that plants could be harvested. A comprehensive dispensary ordinance was prepared by staff at the board’s earlier behest, but it voted to pursue a permanent ban instead, following the lead of Fresno, Clovis and most other cities within the county. The move drew immediate threats of legal action by collective operators.
“I do not believe that the Medical Marijuana (Program) Act or Prop. 215 legally allows for dispensaries or storefronts as they currently exist,” Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims told the board at the start of a contentious, two-hour hearing. She noted that 12 California counties have banned dispensaries, with the latest being Los Angeles, Orange and Trinity.
Mims brought in a star witness to help bolster her case. Tommy Lanier is the director of the National Marijuana Initiative, which oversees a drug-trafficking grant program funded by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. ONDCP’s website claims, in a 2007 publication, that dispensaries average $20,000 a day in profits and increase drug-related violence.
“Dispensaries are illegal, even under the state law … and they’re of course not legal under federal law,” Lanier told the board. Now cities and counties are being told that the taxes and fees they collect from dispensaries are subject to seizure. The city of Oakland was recently warned not to issue large-scale cultivation permits, which the feds view as facilitation of drug trafficking.
“Those profits would not go back to the city, the federal government would come in and take those profits. That’s basically what was told to the city of Oakland, that they were in violation,” Lanier said. County and city dispensary permits can be viewed the same way, he added, but he didn’t mention the cannabis taxes passed by 10 California cities in November.
Lanier also addressed the supply-side economics of “profiteering” dispensaries. “It comes in the back door about $2,500 a pound and it goes out the front door about $11,000 a pound,” Lanier said, prompting collective operators and patients in the audience to burst out laughing. Board chair Judith Case admonished the crowd later so Lanier could finish speaking.
When it was time for public comment, one common theme was the county’s failure to act sooner. “If people do not know what the rules are, how can we follow them?” asked Dennis Nebeker of Central Valley Collective. “If we’re going to say these medical marijuana patients are legal, they have a right to this medicine, but don’t get it here in Fresno … where do they go?”
Sean Dwyer of California Herbal Relief Center told the board he has five employees, including a CalWorks trainee hired with state funding. Those workers now face job loss in a county with 15 percent unemployment.
“We currently are employing hundreds of people in Fresno County between the 15 dispensaries,” Dwyer told the board. “If you ban us you’ll be forcing those jobs out of this county. Also, you’ll be forcing millions of dollars in sales revenue every year out of this county.” Dwyer went on to propose a dispensary tax to help prop up the county’s shaky budget.
Merilee Amos, who represents Fig Garden homeowners, said she used WeedMaps to look up the three Shaw Avenue dispensaries adjacent to their upscale neighborhood. What she found in the comments wasn’t medical, Amos said, with one reviewer saying, “This place is the shit.”
“How they rate their clinics is (through) overall ratings, bud quality, atmosphere, staff, parking, price. I don’t see anything about treatment of symptoms of the disease,” Amos said in supporting the ban.
Shannon Luce, co-founder of Mind, Body and Soul collective in south Fresno, grew emotional as she tried to respond to some of Lanier’s comments. “I know we get targeted as the profiteers of these sick and dying people,” Luce said. “Let’s look at Pfizer. Let’s look at Smith-Kline. Let’s look at Glaxo. They’re the ones profiteering off of sick and dying people, not the ones trying to live off a healthy, nontoxic plant.”
Many patients expressed support for medical cannabis, including Iraq war veteran Trevin Jones. He has post-traumatic stress disorder and other health conditions that have left him permanently disabled.
“I myself was addicted to Vicodin for a very long time,” Jones said. “When I started on medical cannabis, all that stopped. I didn’t need Oxycontin. I didn’t need Vicodin.”
Others lashed out at the supervisors, sensing that defeat was at hand. “You choose to ignore state law, passed by the people,” said collective worker Dustin Frazier Lowery. “You’re giving us no recourse but to violate the law,” said patient-grower Dana Bobbitt, a disabled iron worker. “That’s just sad in Fresno. This didn’t have to happen. It could have been prevented through regulation.”
A pair of high-profile shootings, including a Fresno medipot grower charged with murder for shooting an attempted thief, have shaped the supervisors’ actions. The most recent case involves Prop. 215-labeled cannabis grown southwest of Fresno, which authorities tied to buyers in five states. Authorities seized 3,500 pounds of cultivated marijuana, 4,600 live marijuana plants, guns and cash, and six indictments were issued in Fresno and Massachusetts.
It’s the first Eastern District prosecution for growing marijuana under the state law and distributing it across state lines, the federal prosecutor in Sacramento told the Fresno Bee. Mims told supervisors that five more indictments had been issued in the case, bringing the total to 11, but none of them involve collectives directly. Authorities followed the suspects to some Fresno dispensaries, Mims explained, but they could not prove what was delivered inside.
Susan Anderson was the only supervisor to oppose the ban, sounding a conciliatory note after the board’s vote. “This is not going to be the law forever,” she told the audience. “It’s not.”
But Anderson also suggested that medical cannabis advocates have to work to fix a system where legitimate patients and recreational users co-mingle freely.
“I think someday we’ll have safe access for those who truly need it,” Anderson said. “But not for everybody.”