Nov 162011

Medical marijuana users in Fresno County saw perhaps their last hope for easier access to the drug vanish on Tuesday.

By a 4-1 vote, the Board of Supervisors rejected recommendations by an advisory group to loosen the county’s strict marijuana regulations, Kurtis Alexander reports in the Fresno Bee. Citing a drug trade that sells indiscriminately and profits by doing so, supervisors underscored the need for the current law, which bans pot dispensaries and prohibits people from growing marijuana anywhere but in industrial areas.

“What happens to all those people who benefit greatly from marijuana?” asked Linda Diaz, a local doctor who petitioned the board Tuesday for a more lenient policy. “Are we just going to drop them like hot potatoes?”

Medical marijuana advocates had hoped the supervisors would take the advice of a panel commissioned by the board to review the ordinance – and allow dispensaries to operate in limited fashion and permit patients to grow plants in their homes.

“You’re now forcing people to go out of the county or to the street for their medicine,” said Jody Watkins, a member of the advisory panel and owner of the dispensary Mind, Body and Soul Collective near Malaga.

The board’s decision to dismiss the panel’s recommendations comes on the heels of other bad news for the medical marijuana community.

Last week, a state appeals court ruled that cities and counties have latitude to regulate the trade, dimming prospects for a legal challenge to the county. Local advocates have long threatened a lawsuit.

While state law permits people with a doctor’s prescription to use marijuana, it’s left to interpretation how the drug should be regulated.

Also this fall, federal prosecutors beefed up enforcement of a conflicting federal law that bans marijuana entirely. Fresno County was among the sites of the crackdown. Many of the owners of the county’s 15 or so pot dispensaries were ordered to close.

Others face the county ordinance, which gives the dispensaries until March to shut down.

Supervisor Henry Perea said a tighter policy on medical marijuana is needed because the local industry has gotten out of control. He said he supported the working group’s efforts to revisit the county ordinance, which passed this summer, but he thought the group’s recommendations would only lead to more problems.

He and other board members allege that drugs are being sold for recreational use, big money is being made on a business that’s supposed to be nonprofit, and violent crime is following the trade.

“I think there is legitimate use, but what I see is total abuse,” Perea said.

As it stands, the county medical marijuana ordinance allows the drug to be grown in a handful of industrial areas along Highway 99 and under strict conditions.

Supporters of the drug, however, have said the locations are inconvenient and the conditions make growing the plant next to impossible.

One dispensary owner estimated that some 20,000 medical marijuana users in the county will suffer as a result of the policy. County officials had no estimates for how many users there are.

Supervisor Susan Anderson represented the lone dissenting vote Tuesday.

“I don’t think this ordinance serves our public right,” she said.

Not only should the sick have the ability to get the drug, Anderson explained, they’re going to find a way to get the drug – even if they break the law to buy it or grow it.

“You can’t enforce this,” she said. “We’re going to break down people’s doors? It doesn’t make sense to me.”

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