Merced County leaders have decided to force all marijuana cultivation indoors, a move that did not surprise cannabis advocates but did disappoint them on Tuesday.
The county passed an ordinance in 2013 that allowed medical marijuana users to grow up to 12 plants per parcel outdoors, but in the past year, Sheriff Vern Warnke has pushed for the repeal of that ordinance, arguing marijuana gardens draw crime.
The county’s Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 on Tuesday to repeal the ordinance, effectively pushing all growing inside and reducing the number of legal plants to six, which is also the state standard. Supervisor Rodrigo Espinoza cast the dissenting vote.
Advocates and patients lamented the decision, saying it won’t do anything to curb cartel grows or violence. The “criminalization” of medicine only hurts the sick and the poor, they argue.
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“I really don’t like this ordinance,” medical cannabis user Cheryl Fullerton said. “They need to come up with something where patients have dignity and freedom to grow my own medicine without having to deal with gangs or cartels.”
The 52-year-old Winton resident said she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, an auto-immune disease and other conditions. Medical cannabis helps with pain, anxiety, insomnia and other issues, she said.
Part of why she settled in Merced County was its stance on medical cannabis. It was a way to avoid opioids, she said.
The use of opioids has made national news in recent months. The number of Americans who died from opioids and other drugs last year was 64,000, nearly twice the number of deaths from motor vehicle crashes, according to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
“If they’re not going to allow dispensaries and you’re not going to allow me to grow it, where’s my freedom in choices for my own health,” she said.
The unincorporated parts of Merced County will still not allow dispensaries, according to county staffers.
Six plants grown indoors should allow plenty of product for those who smoke cannabis, according to Merced County Sheriff’s Sgt. Ray Framstad. He estimated up to 9 pounds a year, which he said would allow three users to stay high 12 hours a day every day.
Advocates argue that growing inside is costly because of the equipment needed and the amount of electricity used. And growing outside allows for some error for those with a less than green thumb.
Proposition 64, approved by California voters in November last year, legalized the possession and recreational use of marijuana. It also legalized the sale of marijuana for recreational use starting Jan. 1, 2018 – but gave cities and counties the authority to regulate or prohibit commercial cannabis operations in their jurisdictions.
Merced County voters approved Prop 64 with 54 percent approval.
Law enforcement’s stance that marijuana causes crime is based on numbers from the black market, according to Will Skaarup, a consultant for Sister of the Valley, a growing cohort.
“We think a regulated market drives the black market away,” he said.
The ordinance has a second reading, which is a mandatory second vote, scheduled for Nov. 14.