Local News

Tuesday, Sep 27 2011 05:32 PM

Supervisors put off decision on pot ban

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    There were lots of empty seats at the 2p.m. Kern County Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday afternoon.

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BY JAMES BURGER Californian staff writer jburger@bakersfield.com

Facing two difficult options -- repealing their ban on storefront medical marijuana collectives or sending the issue to the voters -- Kern County supervisors chose to do nothing Tuesday.

County lawyers said the board will, eventually, have to make a decision.

So why delay?

Supervisor Mike Maggard said the board was hoping the county would get more clarity from the U.S. Department of Justice about whether supervisors can regulate medical marijuana without exposing the county and its employees to federal prosecution.

A DOJ letter to the county has threatened to prosecute any county that passes rules allowing the cultivation or distribution of marijuana, Maggard said.

But a copy of that letter, from U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner, mentions only concerns about an ordinance proposed by a local medical marijuana attorney and points out that large-scale cultivation, distribution and movement of money tied to those activities would be prosecuted "vigorously."

Maggard acknowledged that the board will eventually have to repeal the ban on collectives or let voters decide the fate of the ordinance.

"I'm not ready to repeal. I'm not ready to put it to a vote," Maggard said.

But medical marijuana attorney Phil Ganong discounted Maggard's argument.

Ganong noted that another county ordinance -- passed the same day as the ban on cooperatives -- allows the cultivation of up to 12 marijuana plants on a single parcel of land.

"How is that not regulation?" he asked, "How is allowing 12 plants not a violation of the DOJ?"

No matter what option supervisors eventually choose, a petition campaign by medical marijuana supporters has put the ban on cooperatives and the sale of edible marijuana products out of commission for at least three months.

The earliest supervisors could have sent the issue to voters is in an expensive $1 million-plus special election in late December.

Supervisors would be able to save a great deal of money if they waited until the June 2012 primary where, Kern County Counsel Theresa Goldner said, the cost would drop to $55,000 to $85,000.

That would leave the ordinance suspended for about eight months.

Or supervisors could repeal the ordinance, Goldner said, and wait a full 12 months before they would be able to pass a new ordinance on the same topic.

Heather Epps, president of Kern Citizens for Patient Rights, said she expected a delay from supervisors.

Her organization collected, in fewer than 30 days, the 17,350 signatures needed to block the supervisors' ban on collectives and cooperatives.

She thanked Supervisor Karen Goh for visiting cooperatives in an effort to understand the situation and Supervisor Ray Watson for showing compassion.

But she said medical marijuana is what allows her to have a decent quality of life.

"I will fight you guys until I die," she said.

After the meeting, Epps and Ganong said they hope supervisors will take some time, talk about the issue with their attorney and work collaboratively with cooperatives to develop regulations that will ensure the storefront operations will not endanger the community's safety.

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