Oct 152010

The use and cultivation of medical marijuana, which was authorized by Prop. 215, are challenges to both the city and county of Fresno. It is the same challenge faced by cities and counties statewide, and their efforts to regulate medical cannabis have had mixed results. Just as they have in Fresno.

The city first acted to ban dispensaries in 2004, then followed up with an ordinance that allows dispensaries “consistent with state and federal law.” Since medical cannabis remains illegal under federal law, the ordinance serves as a de facto ban on dispensaries.

Faced with the city’s ban, several dispensaries opened their doors in unincorporated Fresno County, a good example of the law of unintended consequences. County supervisors passed an urgency ordinance in July prohibiting medical cannabis dispensaries, then extended it until July 13, 2012. While the ordinance prohibits dispensaries, they continue to operate pending a review of each business requested by supervisors. It’s unknown how they can comply with an ordinance designed to shut them down.

In September, following a pair of shootings connected to medical marijuana gardens, county supervisors passed a ban on the outdoor cultivation of medical cannabis. Four dispensaries filed suit Oct. 8 against Fresno County, naming Sheriff Margaret Mims as a defendant since her agency was tasked with enforcing the ordinance. Fresno County Superior Court Judge Jeff Hamilton issued a temporary restraining order Oct. 13 and set a hearing on whether enforcement should be blocked until the matter goes to trial. That hearing takes place the day after Election Day, when voters will decide whether non-medical cannabis use should be legal for adults 21 and up in California.

Confused? You’re not alone. It’s hard enough keeping up with the changing legal landscape, much less figuring out what it all means. But that is exactly what the city and county must do before stubbing their collective toes again on the subject of medical marijuana collectives. A total ban on dispensaries, based on the presumed supremacy of federal drug laws, may not hold up following a recent appellate court decision on Anaheim’s ordinance. As for the county’s outdoor cultivation ban, imagine the uproar it would cause among local farmers if they were told to yank their crops, right before harvest.

The court-imposed time-out is cause enough to slow down and examine how cannabis laws are developed. A blanket ban on dispensaries and cultivation, both legal for years now, is an exercise in conflict avoidance that’s damaging to patients, growers and caregivers. And while elected officials may lack broad knowledge about cannabis, that’s no excuse for willfully ignoring a law that has been on the books for 14 years. Thousands of responsible Fresno County residents use cannabis in thousands of different ways, and while everyone has an opinion about the criminality, morality or medical effectiveness of such use, Prop. 215 is the law of the land. At the very minimum, those who abide by the law deserve protection from those who don’t.

Meanwhile, Proposition 19 forces a fresh look at non-medical cannabis and how best to deal with it. The constant beating that Prop. 215 has endured gives added weight to ideas like Prop. 19, which would legalize possession and cultivation of cannabis in small amounts for adults 21 and up. If Prop. 19 passes Nov. 2 — and it well might – the Prop. 215 obstructionists may come to realize that they unwittingly contributed to its success. Voters don’t like being ignored.

Fresno has followed in the wandering footsteps of other cities and counties in dealing with medical cannabis dispensaries. That’s understandable, perhaps, but the result has been blanket bans and knee-jerk ordinances, which harm legal users of medical cannabis without making non-users any safer. It’s time to chart a new course that’s based on respect and understanding, not misinformation and stoner stereotypes. After the election, and after harvest, would be a great time to start.

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