County board supports ban against outdoor pot cultivation

Canisters of marijuana are marked for medical use only at Purple Cross Rx in 2010. The dispensary shut down after the county outlawed the operations.

San Benito County is set to have one of the strictest anti-marijuana laws in the state after the board’s 3-2 approval Tuesday supporting a ban against all outdoor medical pot grows in unincorporated areas.
Supervisors initially failed to gain enough votes for an urgency ordinance needing a four-fifths approval. By making subtle changes to language, they indicated support in a 3-2 vote for a regular ordinance that must come back Oct. 6 for an official adoption. It would go into effect 30 days after adoption, or in early November.
Supervisors Margie Barrios and Anthony Botelho brought the proposal to the board. They gained support from Supervisor Jerry Muenzer to obtain the necessary majority. Because it’s a regular ordinance, the board must go through more procedural steps and take more time before the new law would become effective.
If made official, the outdoor growing ban would move the county further from the state’s direction on marijuana legalization, as California voters in 2016 could consider a measure to legalize the plant for recreational use on top of currently allowed medical purposes permitted for nearly two decades.  
Such marijuana restrictions—the ordinance also would limit indoor grows to 12 plants—would represent a rare break from the county’s tradition as a political bellwether on most major topics of interest. Locals at the polls often agree with statewide voters when it comes to ballot measures, governors and most contentious political issues.
But not weed, at least among supervisors.
San Benito County already has an anti-cannabis reputation with separate zoning bans against all medical marijuana dispensaries in Hollister and unincorporated county areas.
The county’s proposed ordinance, at least partly in response to a now-defunct dispensary along Highway 25 that continued to grow pot even recently while spreading a pungent smell across the neighboring commuter road, would ban outdoor cultivation altogether in all unincorporated areas. The law would include a two-year amortization period for existing cultivation sites that can prove they have been growing.
The county would join another one in recently taking a bold step against growers. San Joaquin County in May became the first in California to outlaw all marijuana cultivation—outdoor or indoor—in unincorporated areas, according to the Stockton Record.
In pushing for one of the strictest anti-marijuana laws in the state, Barrios, Botelho and sheriff’s office Capt. Eric Taylor focused their arguments on currently illegal operations.
“We think this ordinance will make our job a lot easier and safer,” said Taylor, who showed supervisors a PowerPoint presentation that included pictures from illegal operations busted by local authorities including two cases involving pot found in corn crops in northern San Benito County.
Botelho recalled how one of those recent cases resulted in field workers running across his own nearby property in the San Juan Valley. He called the issue “personal.”
“This is a real problem in our county,” Botelho said. “I for one want to give every bit of tools to law enforcement.”
On the other side, Supervisor Robert Rivas opposed the measure while criticizing the lacking correlation between illegal operations and legal cultivation being targeted in the ordinance, and also the lack of time for public input on the matter.
He said he did have concerns about “deplorable” conditions at illegal grow sites as shown by Taylor.
“What I’m having a difficult time grasping is how is this ordinance or any ordinance is going to prevent this from happening,” Rivas said.
He referenced machine guns shown in Taylor’s presentation and said he was trying to “put two and two together.”
Of the machine gun possessors, Rivas said, “I don’t think they’re going to be coming to our office for permits.”
Supervisor Jaime De La Cruz personalized his own argument against the ban and said although he hasn’t smoked marijuana, he would consider it if his health conditions necessitated it. De La Cruz has a kidney issue and previously had to use dialysis. He said if his health worsened down the road and marijuana could help his appetite, he would consider it.
“If marijuana allows me to eat, I’m going to try it,” he said.
Among public speakers, local resident Michael Smith also had a personal anecdote to share while opposing the ordinance. Smith explained how in June 2012, he was diagnosed with an advanced stage of cancer and went through a round of surgeries. Last year, he said he called the Purple Cross dispensary previously operating along Highway 25. At that point, he found out the county doesn’t actually have an operating dispensary but maintained an agreement with the marijuana grower that involved no dispensing.
“So obviously I’m here because I don’t see there’s an urgency to this,” said Smith, who no longer carries the card he had last year. “I believe in good government. The reason I’m here is to represent sick people. Up until now, I haven’t heard from anybody that’s come forward and said, ‘I’m a sick person and this helped me.’”
Most public speakers were against the proposal. San Jose attorney James Roberts, who represents medical marijuana interests, said the entire industry agrees with the concept of public safety, curtailing illicit grows, and restricting how and where it’s cultivated and dispensed.
“I think your ordinance would result in the exact opposite,” he said.
Roberts added that such a law assures that authorities “don’t know where it is.”
He also alluded to recently adopted state legislation that provides for “extensive” licensing, control of water diversion, pesticide control, participation by law enforcement and revenue for counties that participate.
“The other thing is they also have provided for the concept of sales taxes to be adopted,” Robert said before being cut off after the three-minute speaking limit.
One public speaker in favor of the ordinance was local resident Ann Ross.
“What I heard for the pros of not putting together this ordinance is one thing, the revenue from sales tax,” Ross said. “That’s about it. Do we want to be in the pot industry? I don’t think so.”
Ross contended there was generally “too much” marijuana in the area, including at San Benito High School.
Previously, one of the leading advocates for cannabis use told the Free Lance that arguments from supporters of the local ban were using fear mongering and that they had an ill-conceived focus on illicit operations.
Dale Sky Jones, chairwoman of the Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform helping to push the recreational effort, responded to the argument about kids’ safety—calling it the “children’s battle cry” from marijuana opponents—and referred to such statements as fear mongering.
“I’d like to just point out that the current policy has entirely failed and has not kept it away from kids,” she said.
Sky Jones queried: “What children actually got harmed from outdoor agricultural grows?” 
She pointed out how since Colorado implemented legalization of recreational marijuana, the state had experienced a reduction in driving under the influence cases, suicides in young men and heroin use.
The Oakland-based Sky Jones, chancellor of Oaksterdam University, the self-proclaimed first cannabis college in America, questioned the correlation with illegal pot cultivation and legal use.
“They’re pointing to the illegal grows insisting that they have to keep everything illegal,” Sky Jones said. “Where is the legal market then?”
Look back for updates.
Nearly two decades later:
In 1996, 57.9% of San Benito County voters supported legalization of medical marijuana, according to the local elections office. Statewide, voters supported it with 55.6 percent in favor.
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