May 132012

Brian Doyle recently tossed out a Dumpster’s worth of marijuana plants for fear of being raided by the Fresno County sheriff. He calls it a loss of good medicine.

Now he worries about losing his investment of tens of thousands of dollars in grow lights, a security system and a lease on a Malaga warehouse where he intended to run the county’s first legal medical marijuana nursery.

Before Doyle could open his business, the Sheriff’s Office ordered him to pack up — not because growing marijuana is against the law in Fresno County but because the county hasn’t put in place the medical marijuana rules it adopted last year.

Under the regulations, Doyle can operate a grow site if he has a permit, Kurtis Alexander reports in the Fresno Bee. Problem is: the county has no permitting system.

“I’ve tried and tried to get an application,” Doyle said, noting his repeated trips to the county’s downtown offices. “But when I asked for the paperwork, at first they told me there is a moratorium on growing. Then, they would say there are things with the ordinance that they haven’t figured out.”

Doyle and others in the local medical marijuana community cry conspiracy. They believe the county passed its medical marijuana ordinance only to give lip service to state law, which grants sick people access to the drug, but with no intention of allowing the trade to operate here.

County officials acknowledge they have concerns about the trade, among them illegal profiteering and violence. But they say there is no hidden agenda to shut out growers who plan to operate under county rules.

Officials say their permitting process remains in development.

Fresno County’s medical marijuana ordinance allows indoor cultivation, under very strict conditions and with a permit, in a handful of industrial areas.

These areas include where Doyle had hoped to operate — south of Fresno, on North Avenue east of Highway 99.

The Board of Supervisors passed the medical marijuana regulations last August in response to complaints about marijuana dispensaries bringing noise, traffic and petty crime to residential neighborhoods.

Sheriff Margaret Mims backed the regulation as a way to help limit traffickers who were selling marijuana for recreational use, but under the pretense of medicine.

Unlike dispensaries, which are banned under the law, the grow sites defined in the ordinance don’t offer storefront sales. They are intended to serve only members who join cooperatives established by the growers.

Marijuana advocates have criticized the regulations as overly restrictive, and only two people, according to county officials, have sought permits to run sites. Doyle was one of them.

“I can understand their frustration,” said county Auditor-Controller Vicki Crow, who handles much of the county’s permitting and acknowledged the delays. “It did take a little while to write the ordinance, and it’s been going back and forth between departments for months.”

Crow said a permit application has been drafted since Doyle initially inquired. However, she said other forms and procedures need to be established before a permit can be granted.

Missing, for example, are required liability agreements. Also, no permitting fees have been put in place, something the Board of Supervisors must do.

County officials say they are continuing to work out the logistics. There is no timeline for this to be done.

In the meantime, Mims says she has little choice but to crack down on grow sites operating without a permit. She says the permitting process, which includes an inspection by her office, is intended to make sure sites operate safely and legally. Absent this process, she said, sound operations are difficult to ensure.

“I don’t think anybody should be planting the marijuana until everything gets put in place and gets signed off on,” she said.

Doyle acknowledges that he was taking a risk by starting his business without a permit. But he says he had no reason to think that if he set things up in accordance with the law there would be problems.

“I’ve gone through their ordinance and I’ve done everything I’m supposed to do,” he said, noting his site selection, the security system he put in place and the number of plants he made room for. “Still, they say if I grow anything they’ll swoop down on me.”

Shortly after Doyle started cultivating marijuana in March, he received a letter from the Sheriff’s Office warning him that he was in violation of the law. The letter demanded that he remove his plants within 14 days.

Doyle complied, leaving an empty warehouse, which he said offered him little hope of recovering the costs of his venture.

“I’m livid,” he added, “but I’m over the screaming and the yelling.”

Local medical marijuana advocate and attorney Bill McPike says the county has had plenty of time to put a permitting process in place.

“They’ve had since August to do this,” he said. “This should have been done.”

McPike and other advocates say the inability for someone to get a permit and legally grow medical marijuana is hardest on residents who have come to rely on the drug to treat medical conditions.

Few medical marijuana dispensaries operate legally in Fresno, Tulare and Madera counties, forcing patients to turn to the black market or go to the Bay Area or Southern California, where sales are legal.

“I’m somebody who really needs to have access,” said Fresno resident Harriette Schwartz, who suffers from multiple sclerosis. “I’m not a teenager running around smoking medical marijuana just because I want to sit there with a smile on my face or raid the fridge.”

Supervisors Henry Perea and Debbie Poochigian, who pushed for the county ordinance last year, said last week that they didn’t know why a permitting process was not in place.

“I don’t want to make it sound like an excuse … it’s taking us a little more time to get everything done,” said Poochigian, noting recent staff cuts and reassignments that have resulted from the budget. “I know there’s no conscious effort to delay just because it’s medical marijuana.”

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