Supervisors move forward with plan to criminalize marijuana cultivation

RIVERSIDE, Calif. - Riverside County supervisors unanimously agreed today to draft regulations aimed at deterring large-scale marijuana growing operations in the unincorporated communities.

``We have an explosion of grow yards in the First District, and they're not small insofar as the numbers of plants go,'' said Supervisor Kevin Jeffries. ``My goal is to go after the large commercial growers. The fines need to be high enough to justify code enforcement officers and sheriff's deputies going after them.''

Jeffries said he was prompted to seek an ``interim ordinance'' prohibiting marijuana grows after taking a walking tour through parts of his district and personally counting eight cultivation operations. He conservatively estimated the total number of grows in Good Hope, Meadowbrook
and Mead Valley to be upwards of 250.

``Many of the neighbors are scared to death,'' the supervisor said, noting in documents posted to the Board of Supervisors' agenda that ``the proliferation of marijuana groves increases the risk of criminal activity, degradation of the natural environment, and often results in illegal electrical
and water connections and alterations.''

The county has an ordinance on the books prohibiting storefront marijuana dispensaries in the unincorporated areas, but there are no specific provisions targeting marijuana grows. Jeffries noted that such activity is impliedly banned at the local level. But to find any definitive prohibition, officials have to look to the federal Controlled Substances Act.

The supervisor said most of the cannabis farms are run by two well-known drug cartels, which mark their territory with graffiti on poles and other objects.

Under the proposed interim ordinance, anyone who cultivates less than a dozen marijuana plants in an unincorporated community would be charged with an infraction, facing fines ranging from $10 to $200.

Anyone who cultivates more than a dozen plants would be charged with a misdemeanor, facing penalties that include fines of $1,000 or more and six months in jail.

A number of speakers turned out to challenge the proposed restrictions, most of them self-identifying as medical marijuana users or cultivators.

``My wife is medicated with marijuana to treat a number of ailments, including fibromyalgia,'' said Riverside-area resident William Gunn. ``I couldn't depend on anyone to provide what she required, so I started growing on my own. I've been able to take care of my wife that way for the last six, seven years.''

Inland Empire resident Karen Taylor told the board she had to start her own mini grow because the prices charged by dispensaries  were ``very high.''

``A ban like this would be detrimental to me and my family's health,'' Taylor said.

Medical marijuana user Thomas Ross told Jeffries he was overreacting to ``the most innocuous drug in the world.''

``When I got ill, doctors kept trying to push Norco on me. I said `no way,' went home, had a puff with a single malt -- all was well,'' Ross said.

Longtime marijuana legalization activist Lanny Swerdlow said a blanket crackdown on marijuana growers was out of step with the times.

``You need to get innovative instead of falling back on that old prohibition mentality,'' Swerdlow said. ``Why make (growing a dozen or fewer cannabis plants) illegal unless you're looking to sock it to patients?'' Swerdlow and others pointed to developments in Colorado, where recreational marijuana use became legal on Jan. 1, in arguing against Jeffries' proposal.

Board members' views were largely in sync, though Chairman Jeff Stone leaned to the perspective of medical cannabis advocates, citing his experiences as a pharmacist.

``There is a need for the medication,'' he said. ``I would hope this ordinance would go after organized efforts to do nothing but make money and peddle weed to youngsters for recreational use. But there shouldn't be a witch hunt of citizens who need and use the drug in the privacy of their homes.''

Supervisor John Benoit said during his three decades as a California Highway Patrol officer, he had witnessed a number of ``lives ruined by marijuana and other drugs.''

``The bottom line is, it's illegal,'' Benoit said. ``When it comes to land-use issues, we do have the authority (to establish regulations).'' He conceded that there should be allowances for those wanting only to ``realize the benefits'' of medical marijuana, which was legalized under Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Act of 1996.

Jeffries offered to work with Stone to craft a regulatory framework that takes into account the needs of medical marijuana users, separating them from the main target of his effort -- commercial growers. With Stone's consent and the balance of the board concurring, a public
hearing was tentatively set for Sept. 23, when the interim ordinance will be formally introduced.

It would take effect immediately and remain active for 45 days, giving the Office of County Counsel sufficient time to draft a permanent amendment to the county's zoning law, establishing a blanket prohibition on marijuana grows ``in all zone classifications'' -- agricultural, commercial, residential, etc.

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