Local News

Wednesday, Aug 10 2011 06:39 PM

Voters could be asked to determine marijuana collectives' future

BY JAMES BURGER, Californian staff writer jburger@bakersfield.com

The Kern County Board of Supervisors had its say Tuesday, passing an ordinance that would ban storefront medical marijuana collectives in unincorporated Kern County and outlaw the sale of edible marijuana products.

Now medical marijuana advocates will have their turn.

Attorneys for cooperatives have promised a two-pronged attack on the supervisors' ordinance.

They plan to file a lawsuit blocking its enactment. And they say they will also launch a referendum drive that could stop the ordinance in its tracks.

Kern County Elections Division Chief Karen Rhea said opponents of the ordinance would need to collect 17,350 signatures from registered Kern County voters before the ordinance goes into effect Sept. 8 to block enactment of the law.

If medical marijuana advocates succeed in collecting the signatures, Rhea said, the ordinance would be sent back to supervisors and -- if supervisors did not repeal it -- the question would proceed to an election at which voters could approve the ban or overturn it.

Deputy County Counsel Devin Brown said the law would remain off the books until the election is decided.

That is exactly what happened in Butte County.

According to the Contra Costa Times, a signature campaign against a Butte County ordinance that limits the growing of marijuana was successful and, on Tuesday, Butte County supervisors were forced to send their ordinance to the voters. They chose to hold a vote during the primary election in June 2012.

The heated debate over Kern County supervisors' decision on Tuesday has its roots in more than a decade of legal debate, uncertainty and conflict.

Use and possession of marijuana for any reason is illegal under federal law.

But California voters in 1996 approved the Compassionate Use Act, which protects patients with a doctor's recommendation and their caregivers from prosecution under state law.

Since the passage of the law, individual cities and counties have struggled with how to control the distribution of marijuana. Kern County has already changed its rules twice in attempts to adapt to legal rulings that have defined and redefined how various forms of distribution can be regulated.

This newest ban, county attorneys say, is based on court cases that they believe give supervisors the right to take such strong regulatory steps.

But Kern County Counsel Theresa Goldner acknowledged that medical marijuana attorneys dispute her point of view.

Jeff Jarvis of Kern County Medicinal Collective, Inc. said he doesn't expect the collective to be shut down because he doesn't expect the law supervisors approved to take effect any time soon.

Advocates have said there are between 20,000 and 30,000 medical marijuana patients in Kern County.

"I'm pretty comfortable that there is not going to be a problem qualifying the referendum," Jarvis said.

But patients of the estimated 30 collectives and cooperatives in unincorporated Kern County are concerned about what could happen to them if the law takes effect.

At the Kern County Kind Collective, employees are uncertain of their fate, said Melody Howell, a receptionist.

"I don't know, everyone's so unsure," she said. "I hope that everyone bands together and that our feelings are heard."

Jarvis said the ban on storefronts, which only impacts unincorporated Kern County, would not eliminate collectives or cooperatives.

"We could move," Jarvis said. Or, "we can stay here and fight it."

Collectives and cooperatives would remain legal in some Kern County cities, no matter what happens with the county ban.

Cooperatives exist in the city of Bakersfield despite the fact that they are not permitted there unless they apply for a land use exception -- called a conditional use permit -- that would allow them to operate.

Bakersfield Planning Director Jim Eggert said he is not aware of any medical marijuana cooperative that has applied for or been granted a conditional use permit, though he knows that some of the operations are located in the city.

Enforcement efforts on the part of the Bakersfield Police Department are complaint driven, said Sgt. Mary DeGeare. Police investigate reports of violations if people are operating outside the legal guidelines.

Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood said his department is mobilizing and putting together an operation to take grows down if the caretakers don't voluntarily pull their plants up.

In addition to the ban on collectives, supervisors approved an emergency ordinance Tuesday that made it illegal to grow more than 12 plants on any parcel of land.

And, because that law went into effect immediately, it cannot be overturned by collecting signatures, said Deputy County Counsel Brown.

Medical marijuana attorney Phil Ganong said that forces medical marijuana advocates to file a lawsuit to block that rule as well, rather than taking all of the issues to the voters.

As far as collectives go, Youngblood said, if they aren't shut down after 30 days, the sheriff's department will close them.

He added that he's received a lot of positive calls and emails since Tuesday's decision.

-- Californian staff writers Kellie Schmitt and Jason Kotowski contributed to this report.

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