Sunday, January 23, 2011

Medical marijuana's future in rural Lake County?



A January 4th, 2011, Lake County Board of Supervisors (BOS) meeting on a new medical marijuana ordinance quickly turned into a heated discussion over the role the substance is going to play in the county’s future. Rural Lake County has a 24.6% poverty rate and an 19.2% unemployment rate. The county is struggling to survive on agriculture and tourism. The county’s two largest industries are wine and cannabis. Many believe that cannabis is now Lake County’s leading cash crop.

There is much debate over proposed medical marijuana ordinances in rural northern California. Many local governments are considering drafting ordinances that would address marijuana cultivation in a context similar to any other agricultural product. Currently, the quasi-legal medical marijuana is being cultivated on small private properties, which is comparable to a small family-owned wine vineyard. The “illegal” marijuana is often cultivated by Mexican Cartels, who manage thousands of plants on public and private properties in remote areas. On August 4th, 2010, a Lake County Sheriffs officer shot and killed a Mexican national tending marijuana plants approximately 10 miles from my father’s house. The debate over cultivation is a hot topic in Lake County, but the January 4th BOS meeting centered on another source of controversy, medical marijuana dispensaries. Lake County’s Community Development Director, Richard Coel, held a three-hour public hearing to discuss the drafting of a proposed ordinance to govern Medical Marijuana dispensaries, focusing on how they should operate and where they should be located. As expected, the hordes both for and against marijuana aggressively expressed their opinions.

Both sides made good points, for example, the pro-marijuana speakers produced facts of medicinal benefit while the opposition argued that many people claim medical use as a cover for recreational use. Pro-marijuana supporters felt economically discriminated against and outspoken marijuana critics wanted stern rules or a complete ban on dispensaries. One comment by Lower Lake attorney Ron Green causeed great controversy. Mr. Green suggested that medical marijuana could provide the county with a specific new strain of tourism. This sparked attorney Peter Windrem to counter that the medical marijuana tourism suggestion “is a nightmare” and that some of Lake County’s medical marijuana activity has “gotten out of control”. During the BOS discussion, District 5 supervisor Rob Brown, just back from New Years in Las Vegas, called Mr. Green’s idea about Medical Marijuana tourism “the biggest joke I’ve ever heard in my life.” District 5 is home to Konocti Harbor Resort, which closed down last year and was the county’s primary tourist attraction. I grew up and worked at Konocti Resort. People often consumed marijuana and alcohol on the premises, and alcohol was by far the more dangerous substance. At the January 4th meeting, “representatives” of the Lake County wine industry took a break from wine tasting to advocate vigorously for stronger enforcement of the dispensaries and for the marijuana prohibition in general. Whether because of economic or moral concerns, the wine industry has seemingly taken special interest in marijuana laws.

Another hot topic was Lake County’s own recently completed health assessment, which highlights high substance abuse numbers for the county, especially amongst its young people. Gary Lewis, former District 3 Supervisor said that he is “disgusted with the direction this county is going” and that a local high school superintendent pleaded for help against marijuana, because so many students are coming to school high on the drug (on the plus side, they are at least attending class and students have shown interest in horticulture for their marijuana grows).

However, the problem is actually even more complicated than that. I attended school K-12 in Lake County, and my father teaches predominately poverty-stricken teenagers at a Clearlake school. Many high school students will skip class during harvest season (October-November). Students have been known to be absent for reasons like protecting their maturing plants from thieves or making money trimming (processing) marijuana buds. In an unfortunate way, these kids are realizing that they need to start planning and preparing for their future. Lake County has no college or university (only satellite classes from Mendocino College and Yuba College), and I believe higher education could be a solution to many of the unintended consequences of the marijuana prohibition.

One very positive result from the public meeting was that it facilitated an exchange of ideas. For example, Attorney Ron Green and retired District 1 Supervisor Ed Robey submitted their own draft ordinance to the county, which would increase the number of dispensaries, allow for C2 zoning, and set up a licensing procedure. The licensing system would be similar to West Hollywood’s system, rather than the staff’s plan of minor or major use permits. The licensing system seems to be more rational, but it may be more difficult to adopt in a rural environment. Community Development director Coel made some good points in favor of the use permit process. He told the BOS that Lake County doesn’t have a business license program and that the use permit process is better because the entitlements accompany the property. Community Development Director Coel stated “any ordinance regarding medical marijuana dispensaries in Lake County must balance the needs of all residents, both the needs and concerns of persons who use medical marijuana and the needs of property owners in both residential and commercial areas of the county.” It is important to analyze this statement in a rural context, as the residential and commercial areas of rural counties are often difficult to distinguish.

The January 4th BOS meeting was just to discuss forming a draft, so basically the controversy is only in the preliminary phase. How is a dispensary any different than a pharmacy or a bar? Are coffee shops (on-site ingestion) similar to Amsterdam or Napa Wine Tasting going to be authorized in the new ordinance? What about the ordinance regarding “medical” marijuana cultivation? If the answer is a progressive medical marijuana ordinance, such an ordinance could be a swift step in the direction of a healthy cannabis industry.

Read a related post here.

4 comments:

Jon di Cristina said...

Interesting post. From my perspective, the primary problem with marijuana is not its health effect, but its connection to cartels in Latin America - something you mentioned. These guys have killed literally tens of thousands of people in Mexico over the years, so I'm interested in anything that might cut off their profits.

Sarah J said...

It's interesting to see that the medical marijuana debate has made it to rural areas in pretty much the same form as it has existed in San Francisco, the only place I really have experienced it before. What's even more surprising to me is that from your post, the discussion seems primarily economics-driven, and not as political as it has gotten around here. I wonder if that means we are thinking about it more practically now as a whole, rather than as a "morals" issue that people (both urban and rural) often adhere to blindly.

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Provocateur said...

To Jon di Cristina: Legalization.

Ron: All I heard before the election was that D was poorly written and a pipe dream for MJ Advocates.

Still they all voted for it why, because they knew these good old boys and girls couldn't/wouldn't even abide by state guidelines for MMJ (12 mature female plants).

not much movement here either