Medical marijuana: political and legal battleground

Medical marijuana: political and legal battleground

BAKERSFIELD, CA (KBAK/KBFX) - The battle over marijuana is heating up, and Kern County is one of the battle grounds. Local voters are set to decide on Measure G, a local rule that would limit where medical marijuana dispensaries can be set up.

 Meanwhile, federal authorities have included Kern County in their crackdown.
 
In March, "For the People" medical marijuana dispensary on Ming Avenue was raided by federal agents, and shut down. The owner let Eyewitness News in a couple months later. Shelves were lined with jars emptied of marijuana, and a letter was still posted on one wall.
 
Attorney Phil Ganong represents some local dispensaries, he's familiar with the letters from the feds and what they say.
 
"This letter is to put you on notice that this activity needs to cease immediately," he relates. "If it doesn't, we'll seize your property and attempt to declare forfeiture and take your property." Ganong told Eyewitness News he's aware of five letters that went to local facilities in January.
 
U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner fired up a campaign last October cracking down on what he called illegal operations of the commercial marijuana industry in California.
 
"Large commercial operations cloak their moneymaking activities in the guise of helping sick people when in fact they are helping themselves," Wagner had said. In October, the feds took action against a batch of marijuana dispensaries and properties where pot was being grown.
 
That included a large grow in Kern County and two properties in Bakersfield on Easton Drive housing a dispenary. "It's not about medicine, it's about profits." Wagner had said.
 
Ganong disputes that, criticizing the federal action. "They're not doing any investigation to determine if an organization is truly linked to organized crime, or if it's a legitimate state organization," he said.
 
And that's the rub. Medicinal use of marijuana is legal under state law, but any use is illegal under federal law.
 
"Under the federal law, there is no exception for the use of marijuana," Kern County District Attorney Lisa Green explained. "Absolutely none." However, California voters passed the Compassionate Care Act in 1996, allowing medicinal use.
 
"For a citizen, it might at times be confusing," Green admitted. As a county, Kern has a history of grappling with the issue, when medical marijuana dispensaries started popping up.
 
In 2006, Kern enacted an ordinance that allowed for six licensed dispensaries. The terms of those licenses were then extended in 2007.
 
But, in 2009 the original ordinance wes repealed, and replaced with one that only required that dispensaries must be at least 1,000 feet from any school.
 
It was in 2006, that Eyewitness News had discovered a dispensary very close to a school in northeast Bakersfield.
 
Then in 2010, the Kern County Board of Supervisors enacted a moratorium that banned any additional dispensaries.
 
It was August 2011 when the Board enacted two new rules. One allowed a maximum of 12 marijuana plants grown on any parcel of land. That was adopted as an emergency ordinance.
 
The second rule simply banned dispensaries. That was set to become effective in September 2011, but it was suspended after opponents gathered enough signatures to block it.
 
Next up, county supervisors decided to put a new rule before the voters, Measure G. It would limit dispensaries to only areas zoned medium- or heavy industrial. They must also be at least one mile apart, and one mile from any school, daycare center, park or church.
 
Ganong and other medical marijuana advocates are deeply critical of Measure G.
 
"It's going to effectively close all the associations," Ganong said. "The second thing is, the locations they have them in are so impractical."
 
The measure was drawn up by the County Counsel's office, and a spokesman told Eyewitness News they're not commenting before the election.
 
As the D.A., Green says she'll enforce Measure G if it's passed. "It comes down to a quality of life issue," she said -- referring to regulation of medical marijuana.
 
Green doubts some dispensaries are truly serving patients with health problems. "It's a billion dollar industry," Green said. "And, none of this is getting to patients who have a need."
 
Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood and other critics argue the marijuana dispensaries and big pot gardens are targets for crime and violence. Green agrees. "The people that come are not just patients," she said. "It brings in a certain criminal element."
 
But, Ganong asks where is the data proving that? He maintains the dispensaries are not a magnet for crime. He's critical of Measure G, saying that will actually backfire and cause more violence. "It will effectively shut everything down, which will effectively drive all patient demands to organized crime," he argues.
 
Meanwhile, Kern voters will decide on the current proposal for local rules. But, the issue is has a lot of moving parts. It's not clear what statewide initiatives might be ahead, or what courts could rule.
 
Also legislation is working its way through Sacramento that would create state oversight for medical marijuana. Supporters of that bill say it would give clarity to law enforcement, local officials and patients. Critics say it would interfere with local governments' right to regulate medical marijuana as they see fit.
 
That question is the next local chapter. Kern voters decide on Measure G on June 5.