Tulare County has sued a medical marijuana operation for growing and distributing in an area zoned for agriculture — not for medical marijuana.
The lawsuit, filed in mid-October in Tulare County Superior Court, wants a judge to stop the Foothill Growers Association collective from operating out of a former dental office near Ivanhoe.
Worries about violence in the region prompted the Board of Supervisors to vote unanimously in closed session in late September to file the lawsuit, said Supervisor Allen Ishida.
Two murders in Tulare County have involved people trying to steal marijuana from medical marijuana gardens, Ishida told the Fresno Bee.
And Tulare County is not alone, he said.
“It’s happening in Fresno County, it’s happening everywhere,” Ishida said.
Medical marijuana collectives are allowed to grow and distribute the plants in Tulare County, but only in certain commercial and industrial zones. Such zones are safer than ag zones, Ishida said.
Medical marijuana was approved by California voters four years ago with the passage of Proposition 215 but remains a contentious subject. It is illegal to possess and grow in most instances and is banned by federal law.
Proposition 215 created a statewide medical exception for individuals who have a doctor’s recommendation. Nonprofit collectives and cooperatives can grow and distribute it to their members under a state Attorney General’s opinion.
Voters last week rejected a ballot initiative that would have legalized marijuana.
Fresno County tried to ban backyard marijuana gardens, but last month a judge temporarily halted the ordinance.
Meanwhile, a Fresno man will stand trial in the shooting death of a man suspected of stealing medical marijuana plants from his backyard garden, an incident that parallels the two incidents in Tulare County — one in Farmersville last month in which a 27-year-old man died, and one near Lindsay that took the life of a 17-year-old boy.
But lawyer Bill Romaine of Hanford, representing the Foothill Growers Association, said it’s a stretch to link legal medical marijuana growing operations to crimes like homicide.
“We’ve had people killed over oranges and grapes,” Romaine said.
Romaine said the county’s ordinance is more restrictive than allowed by state law.
But Tulare County Counsel Kathleen Bales-Lange said state law gives counties the right to regulate the site of most activities.
Zoning ordinance violations rarely result in lawsuits. This marks the first time the county has sued a medical marijuana collective, she said.
The civil lawsuit names Foothill Growers Association, operations manager Jeff Nunes and property owner Manuel Souza. Nunes did not return calls — Romaine said he advised Nunes not to give interviews — and attempts to reach Souza were unsuccessful.
Romaine said the collective chose a site in the ag zone because marijuana grows better there.
If a judge orders a halt to the operation and Nunes refuses, he could be found guilty of contempt of court and sentenced to either five days in jail and a fine, or even incarceration until he agrees to obey the court order, Bales-Lange said.