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Federal Threats Change Mendocino County Medical Marijuana Regulation
by Christina Aanestad ( christina [at] mendocinocountry.com )
Wednesday Jan 25th, 2012 6:14 PM
The Mendocino County Board of Supervisors changed their ground breaking medical marijuana regulation, the 9.31 Ordinance, to thwart off threats from federal officials. The new changes rollback cultivating 99 marijuana plants to 25. Local officials point to federal threats of legal action and fear of raids.
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Federal Threats Change Local Marijuana Regulation
County approves rollback from 99 marijuana plants to 25.

The Mendocino County board of supervisors changed their ground breaking medical marijuana regulation, the 9.31 Ordinance, to thwart off threats from federal officials. The changes roll back the amount a medical marijuana grower can cultivate, from 99 marijuana plants per parcel, down to 25 and it eliminates the Sheriff’s Office from issuing permits to growers.

“I feel comfortable that by eliminating the 99 plant exemption and the permitting process the county is in a better position,” Mendocino County Counsel, Jeanine Nadel told The Independent.

Although Nadel declined to comment on the extent of federal threats, according to 5th District Supervisor Dan Hamburg, last month, U.S. Federal Attorney Melinda Haag paid a visit to Nadel and threatened to file an injunction against Mendocino County’s 9.31 medical marijuana regulation, then go after local authorities.

“In an October 2011 press conference Melinda Haag was very clear that she would use RICO Statues against public officials who promulgate laws that are found to be in violation of the controlled substances act,” said Hamburg.

RICO, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, is a federal law that targets organized crime through acts like bribery, money laundering, and extortion. By accepting money from pot growers, could Mendocino County officials could be liable for RICO violations?

When asked if Haag threatened to go after specific officials during her meeting with Nadel, Hamburg replied, “They didn’t name any specific persons…but I do know that the U.S. Attorney brought up that possibility.”

According to 2nd District Supervisor John Mccowen, “There has been speculation that the Federal Attorney's Office had been assembling "evidence" and was prepared to raid the Sheriff's Office,” he said.

Mccowen was instrumental in crafting the 9.31 ordinance. A marijuana critic, he drafted 9.31 with input from the cultivating community, seeing a need to establish community safeguards and environmental protections in the medical marijuana industry.

“It made it clear to the sheriff that these are the people that are complying with our regulations, they’ve been inspected, we know they are not diverting water or creating other community problems, ” he explained.

Marijuana, medical or not remains a Class 1 narcotic, likened to heroin and cocaine. But since California voters legalized the plant for medical purposes in 1996, federal authorities have kept a close eye on the state’s burgeoning medical marijuana industry. The Independent reported in October 2011, federal authorities began a series of raids and legal actions against medical marijuana companies in California, including Northstone Organics, a local medical marijuana dispensary in Redwood Valley, Ca.

As The Independent reported late last year, federal authorities also sent letters to several cities including Chico, Ca, warning against regulating and controlling marijuana. And now, they’ve got an eye on Mendocino County.

“[9.31] is a model of what a regulated, legalized above ground marijuana economy could look like and I think that’s very threatening to the federal government,” Mccowen told The Independent.

Mccowen estimates last year the 9.31 ordinance generated $500,000-$600,000 for the Sheriff’s Office. Mendocino County also saves money in fewer resources spent on arresting and prosecuting lower level medical marijuana growers, he said.

Some local policy makers and medical marijuana advocates didn’t favor the 9.31 program Mccowen helped craft.

“There’s no other county on the planet that allows 99 [marijuana] plants to be grown,” Hamburg told The Independent.

Mendocino County’s 9.31 ordinance allowed medical marijuana cultivators to grow 99 marijuana plants on a parcel. With multiple parcels Hamburg said the 9.31 Ordinance went too far.

“So, you’ve got people growing 500 plants legally in this county, that’s thousands of pounds of marijuana and that’s something I don’t even support,” said Hamburg, a known medical marijuana cultivator, who as a congress member in 1992, worked to declassify marijuana from a Class 1 narcotic, unsuccessfully.

“Is it better to have it all forced back underground and have that many more trespass grows on public and private lands with no conditions or inspections?,” asked Mccowen.

At the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors meeting January 24th, more than 30 people attended to speak on the issue of changing the 9.31 Ordinance. Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman was absent from the meeting. Most of the attendees spoke in favor of 9.31 and keeping the 99 plant limit.

“If we could take some of the money and put it towards a legal defense fund, I would be totally behind that. I would say fight this thing to the Supreme Court if we have to,” said Eric, a 9.31 participant.

With limited resources, no supervisor favored the idea of going toe to toe with Uncle Sam. Hamburg said if they had a partnership with other counties that have more financial backing and political power, he might consider it, but, “It’s not a hill I’m willing to die for,” he said.

Nadel, without going into detail about her conversation with federal agents, told the supervisors, “99 plants is an issue.”
A few medical marijuana advocates spoke against 9.31’s 99 plant limits and permitting program. Medical marijuana advocates like MMAB-Mendocino Medical Marijuana Advisory Board claim 9.31 was too limiting and the controls set forth would restrict patient access to the plant medicine. Other medical marijuana advocates said the program was too bold.

“This ordinance has subjected the entire medical cannabis community of Mendocino County and the state of California to intense federal scrutiny which we don’t want or need and helped force a statewide federal crackdown on our community that has severely restricted or eliminated access to our medicine to tens of thousands of patients; it has also cost the most public participant [Matt Cohen-owner of Northstone Organics] everything he had,” said Mike Johnson owner of Compassionate Heart Dispensary in Ukiah, Ca.

Other growers urged the supervisors to keep the program, going like John Mark, an Anderson Valley resident, who discovered marijuana when his wife was fighting cancer. “We all stepped out of the shadows to take part in this; I think the board should support us and continue to support the program.”

The Mendocino County Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 for new changes to the 9.31 Ordinance. 3rd District Supervisor John Pinches, was the dissenting vote. Since marijuana is federally illegal, Pinches questioned why the feds would support a 9.31 regulation that allows producing up to 25 marijuana plants.

“That is like telling a bank robber you can’t rob banks, but as long as you stay out of the $100 drawer and take the $10’s and $20’s, that’s o.k.,” he said at the absurdity of the situation.

But, fear is a powerful emotion. Scared the county will lose federal funding, and individuals face criminal prosecution, the rest of Mendocino County’s Supervisors voted to change it’s 9.31 Ordinance, but not eliminate it, entirely.

Medical marijuana growers can cultivate up to “(25) marijuana plants on any (1) parcel,” and they can voluntarily pay for zip-ties, “to avoid unnecessary confiscation and destruction of medicinal marijuana plants,” according to the new ordinance.

“The County is no longer able to issue permits, so that part of the program has ended, at least for now,” explains Mccowen in an email to The Independent, “When the political winds change the program can be brought back,” he continues.

Axing out the permitting program eliminates the county’s 3rd party inspector. And according to Mccowen, reducing how well the county can regulate the devils weed hurts everyone.

“The federal crackdown, which apparently seeks to prohibit above ground regulated cultivation and distribution of medical marijuana will have the effect of driving all marijuana into the black market. When people can no longer grow openly in a controlled environment with inspection and compliance with conditions, and when patients can not openly visit a regulated dispensary, the effect will be to force growers into the black market and patients into the back alleys. I see it as a setback that endangers public safety and the environment,” he wrote.

The changes to 9.31 also eliminate a ban on diesel generators, and no longer require a tenant to inform the property owner of a medical marijuana grow.

Supporters could take the 99 plant regulations to the ballot box, similar to what Lake County marijuana advocates are doing. Citizens for Responsible Regulations and the Lake County Green Farmers Association are working on a ballot initiative that would allow people to grow up to 84 medical marijuana plants on a 7-acre parcel and up to 12 budding plants in a residential area.