Jordan Vas bought a marijuana plant last month for his home in Parlier. He admits he doesn’t have a green thumb, but tending his own crop is his strategy for getting marijuana in the wake of the Fresno County ban on dispensaries.
“I’ve never grown anything in my life,” said Vas, who has long bought pot at a dispensary for back pain. “But now there’s no other way.”
This week marks the end of the grace period for 15 or so medical marijuana dispensaries that were given six months to shut down after Fresno County’s prohibition took effect.
With most shops pledging to close, if they haven’t already, thousands of users have begun looking for other ways to get the drug, Kurtis Alexander reports in this A-1 enterprise story in Sunday’s Fresno Bee.
Many were in lines that formed outside the remaining dispensaries the past two weeks, stocking up while they could. Some were drawn to closeout promotions, such as markdowns on Mr. Nice and Blue Dream marijuana strains or raffles that promised free medicine.
Several shoppers said they had been contacting friends who sell the drug to arrange for future supplies. Others said they’ll drive to places where dispensaries are open, such as Oakland or San Jose, to get marijuana. Some were hopeful that a few local shops will remain, even if it’s on the hush-hush or for private delivery.
Local authorities, meanwhile, are vowing to crack down. The Sheriff’s Office said it will make sure existing businesses close and step up efforts against the street trade, continuing what both sides acknowledge has become a game of cat-and-mouse as the legal landscape for marijuana has constantly shifted.
Federal law prohibits medical marijuana use. But state law, as of 1996, permits it. Local regulations have sought to rein it in.
“It’s just a mess,” Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims said. “It’s definitely not been easy to enforce the law.”
For now, momentum is with the sheriff. The new county ordinance paves the way for code enforcement to begin against dispensaries that remain open after Thursday, and federal authorities are lending support.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office has sent letters to several county properties where dispensaries operate — and dozens of others across the Valley — ordering marijuana sales to cease.
In October, federal agents went as far as shutting down two county dispensaries: one in Friant and one in the Tarpey Village neighborhood.
Dispensary operator Sean Dwyer, who closed his Fig Garden storefront just last week, said a November letter from the U.S. Attorney’s Office sealed his decision to wind down.
“When you have the feds enforcing your local ordinance, there’s not much you can do,” Dwyer said. “How are you going to pay for a decent attorney if all your assets have been seized?”
Dwyer sent his customers a text message last week, alerting them of his final days. The message motivated many to make one last shopping trip.
“I said, ‘Holy crap!’ when I saw the text,” said Harriette Schwartz, a California Herbal Relief Center customer. “I thought, ‘How am I going to get my medicine now?’ ”
The 61-year-old Fresno resident uses marijuana to treat inflammation from hip bursitis. She remained unsure last week where she would make her next purchase and how she would deal with her pain.
Dwyer’s 23 employees also were uncertain of their future.
“I’m looking at my possibilities,” said Isaac Gonzalez, who ran the dispensary’s finances. Gonzalez was particularly concerned about losing his employee health insurance.
Brenda Linder, an attorney who has represented several marijuana dispensaries, said her clients had been prepared to fight the county ordinance — on grounds that it ran counter to state law. But with the federal officials now enforcing federal law, Linder said dispensaries no longer had a case.
“It doesn’t make it a good option to fight locally when the federal government is going to shut them down anyway,” she said. “I’m disappointed my clients didn’t have the opportunity to file a lawsuit. The county ordinance, I believe, is illegal and unconstitutional on so many levels.”
County law prohibits storefront marijuana sales as well as the cultivation of the drug outside a handful of industrial areas.
No permits have been pulled to grow in the permitted areas, county records show.
As of last week, nine dispensaries that were operating when the county ordinance kicked in had shut down or told The Bee they would be closing. A handful declined to discuss their plans.
Still, many dispensary managers are expecting marijuana laws to change yet again and allow them to get back in business.
The right of local government to regulate marijuana remains the subject of numerous lawsuits, including at least three the state Supreme Court has agreed to review. Also, limits on city and county regulation are being sought through state legislation and ballot initiatives.
How involved the federal government will continue to be remains in question.
The Obama administration had indicated that it wasn’t interested in cracking down on businesses that comply with state marijuana laws and remained largely on the sidelines. Last fall, however, federal prosecutors began busting dispensaries alleged to be in violation of state law; prosecutors said shops were making big profits off what was supposed to be a nonprofit industry.
A spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner said last week that many of the county dispensaries continued to be in violation of state law and were targets for prosecution. The office declined to say which dispensaries were targets or how many.
On Thursday, Wagner visited Fresno to announce plans to expand the federal crackdown to farmland. The office said too many rural properties were growing marijuana for illegal sales.
Enforcement comes as good news to some.
Marilyn Kelarjian, president of the county’s Neighborhood Watch Association, said the local regulations already are having a positive effect. Residents of the Fig Garden community, where three dispensaries have closed, are seeing fewer nuisances near their homes, she said.
“There had been documented crimes, bad ones that had occurred there: armed robberies, people trying to break in in the night,” Kelarjian said.
The Sheriff’s Office confirmed hold-ups at a dispensary on Shaw Avenue and break-ins elsewhere, but the crime numbers haven’t been off the charts. The biggest problem for neighbors, sheriff’s officials have said, has been quality of life issues, such as additional traffic and loitering.
The county Board of Supervisors approved the marijuana regulations in September in response to complaints about noise, traffic and bad behavior at and around the dispensaries. The board also wanted to halt large-scale marijuana grows in rural areas.
Most cities in the county already ban storefront marijuana sales. Madera County prohibits dispensaries and Tulare County allows up to three dispensaries, though none currently meet county requirements.
Fresno County Supervisor Debbie Poochigian, who pushed for the county regulation, said her constituents in Tarpey Village have also noticed a difference since the rules took effect.
Said Poochigian: “I have gotten nothing but comments from the neighbors on how quiet it is now, how safe it is now, and how they can allow their children into the front yard again.”