Apr 012012

It’s been 16 years since California voters decided to decriminalize medical marijuana, but the legal smoke surrounding the movement isn’t clearing anytime soon.

The tangential issues the legalization has created are myriad, and new ones pop up overnight, this Santa Cruz Sentinel editorial observes. The latest?

A rise in outdoor marijuana plantations in the county — some farmed by those who really appear to be growing marijuana for medicinal purposes — has area code enforcement officers and firefighters concerned about environmental degradation and fire hazards.

Meanwhile, what to do about the indoor marijuana grows that pose fire dangers of their own? There have been two house fires in the county linked to indoor marijuana grows in the past three months. Who knows whether the grows were legitimate medical-marijuana operations — most everyone seems to have a card saying they’re free to grow and smoke marijuana — but it’s safe to say neither party sought out county code enforcement to look over the grow houses before the first plants went in.

To be clear, we have been supportive of the medical marijuana movement. The active properties in cannabis have been proven medically to help a segment of people suffering from serious illnesses including cancer.

But local communities are still struggling to regulate marijuana dispensaries, putting limits on operations and where the shops are located.

It’s also near impossible to regulate the people who buy pot at dispensaries. A certain percentage, probably a minority, are buying the drug to help with serious medical conditions, but many more, research suggests, use it for recreational purposes.

The entire medical marijuana issue has become a total mess, and as cities, counties and states grapple with regulations, new problems arise.

While marijuana grows are nothing new in the Santa Cruz Mountains, officials have found more properties in the past year where trees have been cut down and left in the woods to clear space for a grow. That creates environmental problems and boosts the fire danger. Cal Fire officials opened three cases for unlawful timber operations related to marijuana plantations in 2010. In 2011 they opened 22.

Some growers flash medical marijuana cards to show that their grow is legal, fire officials say. But firefighters are there to check for fire safety.

County code enforcement officers also are concerned. Improper grading and erosion on steeper properties create their own problems, fouling fish habitat and polluting waterways. Similar to Cal Fire, county code enforcement officers say that when they inspect properties, they often tell owners they are not interested in the potential criminal aspects of marijuana. It’s about land use.

Inside grows have their own problems.

High-powered lamps can overwhelm home electrical systems or overheat small spaces. Hastily constructed water and ventilation systems and gas-powered generators also can be fire threats.

Firefighters and county officials urge growers to get county permits for electrical work and have a licensed contractor handle new wiring. That certainly makes sense.

But part of the reason outdoor growers do not get county permits to convert land and indoor growers do not seek permits is the gray legal area surrounding marijuana cultivation. The state began to allow medical marijuana in 1996, and patients with a doctor’s recommendation can legally possess it and grow it for personal use. But federal law still prohibits its cultivation, possession and sale.

The state Supreme Court needed to weigh in yesterday about if and how counties can permit and regulate marijuana grows. There are so many loose ends in the state and federal laws that it resembles a cluster of electrical cords in an indoor grow — waiting to explode.

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