Oct 272011

Kings County supervisors brought the hammer down on medical marijuana Tuesday, voting to put in place a tough ordinance that will force commercial operations to shut down and allow only for personal growing indoors.

The 5-0 vote came after impassioned testimony on both sides, Seth Nidever reports in the Hanford Sentinel. Medical marijuana users spoke in favor of more relaxed regulations that would keep the county’s two medical pot shops open.

Under a law passed in 1996, California provides protection to medical pot users.

Supporters of the anti-medical marijuana ordinance said the law is being abused and police officers and sheriff’s deputies should be given the power to crack down on the whole industry.

Reaction from medical marijuana supporters to Tuesday’s vote was harsh.

“This is such a bonehead regulation,” said Doug Downton. “It’s going to go to the criminal element. Now it’s a criminal element with no taxes.”

Downton, who described himself as a Hanford garden supply store owner but declined to name his business, was referring to Top Shelf and Gray Sky Alternative Medicine Collective, two medical pot dispensaries operating on East Lacey Boulevard.

Anti-marijuana activists, who brought colorful signs to the meeting, praised the vote. Many were from Champions Recovery Alternative Services, a Hanford-based drug rehabilitation facility.

“I want to thank you for the bold decision you made,” said Sue Weisenhaus, Champions executive director.

Supervisors indicated they were heavily swayed by testimony from law enforcement in favor of the ban. Kings County sheriff’s deputies and Hanford police officers said that medical marijuana law is often abused, putting the drug into the hands of criminals and making it difficult to sort out legitimate users from bad actors.

“There’s so many loopholes in this law,” said Kings County Sheriff Dave Robinson. “I support the total ban until the state Legislature and the governor correct the loopholes. We’ve seen it exploited tremendously.”

But there were many people who said they rely on medical marijuana to treat their illnesses. Speaker after speaker said that medical pot treated their pain better than prescription painkillers and with fewer side effects.

“To me, it’s all about safe access,” said Jerry Watson, a former Kings County sheriff’s deputy who opened Top Shelf earlier this year. “Without dispensaries, you have to go to the street to get it.

“We’ve never had any kind of problem. I would like to be able to stay open. You’re welcome to come down and check it out,” Watson added.

Other residents, however, complained about problems surrounding medical pot shops.

“We started having vandalism problems,” said Faith Rose, a property owner near an Armona dispensary that was shut down earlier this year for violating county rules. “It brings a huge concern to us as business owners.”

The testimony went back and forth, with a cheer from one side followed by applause from the other.

“It’s difficult, because both sides have a valid point,” said County Counsel Colleen Carlson, speaking to supervisors before the vote. “I wish the Legislature would step up to provide some help to you.”

In reaching their decision, supervisors may have been encouraged by recent stepped-up federal enforcement action against California dispensaries. All marijuana is illegal under federal law.

But it remains to be seen whether the county’s tough restriction — and similar ones like it, such as in Fresno County — will survive legal challenges. Courts are unclear on whether dispensaries can be banned outright, and the issue of whether patients can be forced to grow their medical marijuana indoors hasn’t been decided.

“This [vote] sounds like it’s a whole lot more than regulation,” said Robert Raich, an Oakland attorney who represents medical marijuana users, in a phone interview. Raich said the ban on outdoor growing could have the effect of denying patients access, since indoor marijuana cultivation can be difficult and expensive.

Carlson said she has “at least a mid-level expectation” that a lawsuit will be filed.

Supervisors, however, said they wanted a rule that gives law enforcement the authority to clamp down on alleged abuse.

“It gives the sheriff teeth so he can take control of the situation,” said Supervisor Doug Verboon.

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