Madera County sees increase in illegal grows

Regulations continue to change for medical marijuana users in Madera County

awileman@sierrastar.comJanuary 14, 2014 

The California San Joaquin Valley is one of the largest producers of marijuana in the world and has quickly become a resourceful hub for those hoping to distribute and traffic marijuana throughout the state. As state laws become more and more lenient towards the once-outlawed drug, counties like Madera County are seeing a dramatic increase in the number of illegal grow sites. As more grow sites pop up, counties continue to struggle with the issue of how to regulate, monitor and enforce the proper growth, distribution and usage of marijuana that coincides with the safety and well-being of that particular community.

Laws pertaining to marijuana (cannabis) consumption, growth and distribution have dramatically changed over the past 15 years, making it difficult for people to understand what is legal and what is not.

In 1996 Californian voters passed Proposition 215, better known as the Compassionate Use Act of 1996, with a total 55.6% of voters voting to legalize the use and growth of marijuana for medical purposes (59% of Madera County residents voted against legalizing medical marijuana).

Since the formation of Proposition 215, the state and counties have seen a dramatic increase in the number of grow sites and operations in counties like Madera County, as well as throughout the state.

According to the California Department of Justice, Prop 215 gave specific guidelines as to the regulation of medical marijuana and its users, such as:

Qualified patients and caregivers may possess eight ounces of dried marijuana, as long as they possess a state-issued identification card.

Qualified patients may only maintain six mature or 12 immature marijuana plants; (the report also says that local governments may allow patients or caregivers to exceed these base levels, and that growers often are shielded with doctor recommendations for medical marijuana, routinely growing up to 99 marijuana plants because 100 plants or more receives harsher penalties if prosecuted federally).

Marijuana smoking is restricted by location. It may not be smoked wherever smoking is prohibited by law, within 1,000 feet of a school, recreation center, or youth center, on a school bus, or in a moving vehicle or boat.

Marijuana use is not to be accommodated in the workplace or in any type of correctional facilities. It is important to note that under the Fair Employment and Housing Act, an employer may terminate an employee who tests positive for marijuana use.

Patients and defined caregivers (growers who provide for an individual) who possess or cultivate marijuana recommended by a physician are exempt from criminal laws which otherwise prohibit possession or cultivation of marijuana.

Physicians who recommend use of marijuana for medical treatment shall not be punished or denied any right or privilege.

The measure is not to be construed to supersede prohibitions of conduct endangering others or to condone diversion of marijuana.

Legitimate reasoning for usage under Prop 215 include: cancer, anorexia, AIDS, chronic pain, spasticity, glaucoma, arthritis, migraine, or any other illness for which marijuana provides relief (physicians have recommended marijuana for hundreds of indications, including such common complaints as insomnia, PMS, post-traumatic stress, depression, and substance abuse).

Following the application of Prop 215 and in response to the increase in usage and availability, state legislature passed California Senate Bill 420, which was signed by Gov. Gray Davis in 2003, and gave a broader scope and more finely defined the rules and regulations when it came to the growth and distribution of marijuana.

These regulations included:

Recognition of the right of patients and caregivers to associate collectively or cooperatively to cultivate medical marijuana.

Disallows marijuana smoking in no smoking zones, within 1,000 feet (300 m) of a school or youth center (except in private residences), on school buses, in a motor vehicle that is being operated, or while operating a boat.

Protects patients and caregivers from arrest for transportation and other miscellaneous charges not covered in Prop 215.

Allows probationers, parolees, and prisoners to apply for permission to use medical marijuana; however, such permission may be refused at the discretion of the authorities.

Makes it a crime to fraudulently provide misinformation to obtain a card, to steal or misuse the card of another, to counterfeit a card, or to breach the confidentiality of patient records in the card program.

Allows patients to be exempt from restrictions if they obtain a physician's statement that they need more marijuana.

Allows counties and cities to establish higher - but not lower - guidelines if they so choose.

On Sept. 30, 2010, California took another step to decriminalize the usage of marijuana when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law California State Senate Bill 1449, effectively reducing the charge of possession of up to one ounce of marijuana from a misdemeanor to an infraction with a $100 fine and no mandatory court appearance or blemish on their criminal record. The law went into effect Jan. 1, 2011.

In response to the bill and in order to stop their counties from becoming overrun with marijuana-related crimes, such as burglary, environmental damage and murder, and in response to the growing numbers of illegal grow sites, certain counties like Madera County, began passing ordinances to discourage people from flooding their communities with the one-time illegal substance.

In 2012 Madera County supervisors voted unanimously to outlaw medical marijuana dispensaries in their county, something that had many marijuana advocates outraged. These advocates believe the county stepped over their boundaries by disregarding state law that allows dispensaries to exist. But it was simple. The county refused to approve a business license for anyone attempting to open a dispensary in Madera County.

According to the California National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (Cal NORML), as of 2012 Madera County marijuana laws were as follows:

Medical marijuana patients can grow the plants in a room inside a single-family home, or in an enclosed space measuring up to 120 square feet on the property (as of March 13, 2012 outdoor grow sites are required to be in an enclosed area).

Plants can not be taller than six feet, and they can not be grown in commercial or industrial areas or within 2,000 feet of a school, church or other public building.

The primary caregiver must live with the patient.

Those caught breaking the law can face up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

When asked about the idea of restricting marijuana cultivation to indoors only, Dale Gieringer, Director for Cal NORML, argued that indoor cultivation was not the answer and would dramatically increase the environmental problems that can accompany indoor-marijuana farming.

"We don't think that it's wise to restrict marijuana growing to indoors. It is very inefficient and as far as the carbon footprint, there is more waste and a more dramatic negative impact to the environment with indoor cultivation," Gieringer said. "We do believe there should be fencing to ward off underage kids who may be coming into to steal it and there should also be some sort of an allotment like there is with tobacco in the U.S. — in many instances there are wire fences and warning signs posted and that seems to be enough."

As more and more counties like Madera County began to restrict the growth and sell of marijuana, marijuana activists went before the California Supreme Court for a ruling in regards to the specific rights of each county in terms of restricting marijuana.

In response to the request, in the first quarter of 2013, the California Supreme Court ruled that neither Prop 215 nor California Senate Bill 420 prevented local governments from prohibiting marijuana dispensaries or regulating grow sites. This allowed counties to restrict grow sites and dispensaries on their terms.

According to Madera County Sheriff John Anderson, in order to enforce these laws and regulations, counties are forced to spend more money and resources investigating potential illegal grows.

In fact, to counteract the vast increasing population of illegal marijuana growers in Madera County, the Madera County Sheriff's Office has developed a federally funded special task force called MADNET (Madera Narcotics Enforcement Taskforce) specifically designated to the enforcement and regulation of laws as they pertain to marijuana.

"Most of these people are not growing for recreational use, they're growing it to sell and if you're in the marijuana trade, there is crime. Most of the people growing large amounts are not upstanding citizens. They're in it for the money and it's beyond medical use or personal use, it's for drug sales and money," Anderson said.

According to Anderson, even with the application of certain restrictions, because of state laws, growers are becoming less afraid of punishment and prosecution. Because of this, counties like Madera County have seen a surge of illegal grow sites moving into their communities.

"Rarely do we come across someone who has the limited amount.... The doctors will recommend 99 plants and we will go into a grow site and there will be 200 to 300 plants not confined to a 10-by-12 area. It is rare that we come across a legal grow in regards to the county ordinance," Anderson said.

Madera County District Attorney Michael Keitz says his office continues to prosecute those who grow illegally but insists that state laws make a grey area for those using the medicinal usage as a shield against prosecution.

"We are continuing to prosecute people with illegal grows but state matters do complicate the process," Keitz said. Some claim the number of problems persist with regulation of marijuana and this has many people upset and afraid that the criminal element is following closely behind. There is the fear that their once-quiet town is becoming a safe haven for those who intend to capitalize on unknowns surrounding the regulation of cannabis.

Anderson believes crime will always be a factor, despite the possible legalization of medical and recreational marijuana.

"Regardless of the legalization of marijuana, drug cartels will still be here, growing it for the other states that have not legalized it yet," Anderson said. "They are not going to give up because there is too much money...it's against the law now and we can't regulate it. What makes people think if we legalize the drug that it would be any different?"

However, there are always two sides to the story and Gieringer disagrees with the general assessment that crime runs tandem with marijuana usage and growth. Gieringer is adamant that the only reason there is a criminal element surrounding the marijuana issue is because of its illegal status. Gieringer claims the legalization of marijuana for adult use would drown out much, if not all, the criminal elements that authorities claim attach and limit itself strictly to marijuana.

"The criminal element is only introduced when it is made illegal, the "fight" against marijuana is a crime-creation program authorities have created to receive more funding and revenue for their department," Gieringer said. "For example, organized crime only got involved with alcohol once they made it illegal."

Gieringer and Cal NORML promote regulation on marijuana in a similar fashion to how alcohol is regulated, thereby granting usage to those of proper age and qualifications.

Meanwhile, Madera County continues to be a popular destination for illegal grow sites since the area is less populated, allows for easy access to water, and is located in the center of the state, which allows for better distribution upon harvest.

There were 57 illegal grow sites discovered and eradicated in Madera County between Jan. 2013 and Oct. 2013, with slightly more than half of those being found in the Mountain Area — a number that many say will grow in the coming years following Fresno County Supervisors decision to pass a cultivation ban on marijuana being grown in rural areas inside Fresno County.

In 2013, between January and October, more than 768,486.9 grams of processed marijuana, with an estimated street value of more than $180 million, was seized from illegal grow sites — a number that has nearly doubled from 2012 (148,000 plants were seized in 2013).

Along with large number of marijuana eradications, the sheriff's department has made 84 arrests in 2013 up from 10 in 2012, and according to the report there has been a drastic increase in the amount of chemicals and trash found in connection to illegal grow sites. In 2013 the Madera County Sheriff's Office removed nearly 15,000 pounds of waste and approximately 10 miles of drip line from illegal grow sites located throughout the county.

"At one of the grow sites in the county, they had a sign up with their drivers license, name, and recommendation. It was for 99 plants and it was issued from a doctor in Visalia and assigned to a woman who lived in Richfield, who was growing in Madera County. Why would we have a recommendation from Visalia, for a woman in Richfield, growing in Madera? It seems crazy to me," Anderson said.

Keitz said punishment for violating marijuana recommendations and laws differs from case to case and depends on whether or not there is past criminal history and whether or not the site was proven to be used for commercial or personal usage. In some instances, Keitz said a person with priors has been put in prison for as many as 11 years, something he claims is putting a burden on our local prison systems.

"Depending on whether or not it's a first time offense or a small amount of plants, it may just be probation and if it cannot be proven they are selling the marijuana then they may get a drug program and probation, but if there are priors they can serve anywhere from 16 to 36 months in jail...it's really out of our hands though," Keitz said.

Sheriff Anderson says he hopes to go before legislators soon to request that more distinct regulations be put forth to encompass all counties so there is less of a grey area to be covered. However, Anderson also is aware that it may all be for nothing if marijuana is legalized in next November's elections.

"I was going to attempt to go before state legislature and solve the problem of different counties with different laws. We would like to see some sort of consistency so that people don't have to shop around for a county that suits their needs. The problem is that these decisions are being passed by law makers and politicians, not by medical personnel and doctors ... as long as its against the law we will attempt to do something about it," Anderson said.

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