Public comments sway supervisors in decision to reconsider medical marijuana ordinance

After public comments, supervisors vote 4-1 to take fresh look at a proposed marijuana ordinance
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Attorney Aaron Johnson, who represents the Coastal Growers Association, and other public speakers, along with a lengthy presentation on recent developments on marijuana legislation, convinced a majority of San Benito County Supervisors to reconsider an ordinance to ban cultivation of outdoor medical marijuana. The matter will likely come back before the board after more study and for more public input.

Johnson’s law firm, L+P LLP Attorneys at Law, represents people who are involved in the cultivation, manufacturing and dispensing of cannabis. He sought to assure the board that his firm supports a legal, controlled environment that’s taxed and regulated, and they’re willing to participate on all levels in that discussion. He asked that the board defer from taking a position on the ordinance.

“I think it’s premature,” he said. “I think you’ve got a lot of information in front of you today that warrants further discussion and inquiries into how to merge the two concepts of prohibition of illegal activity and provide for legal businesses that will help fund and help with that illegal gang-related activity.”

A temporary moratorium, Johnson said, might be more appropriate.

“I think it makes sense to get us together at the table to assist law enforcement with an understanding of what could happen with this industry in a legal environment,” he said. “It’s not only warranted, but I think it would be an excellent move forward. It’s an opportunity to work together. There’s only one group of people who won’t show up to weigh in on the discussion and it’s the illegal growers.”

James Blocher, one of the owners of a property along San Juan Road, told the board about being approached about setting up a marijuana operation. At first, he said he was skeptical.

“I don’t like the whole quasi-legal aspect of this whole thing,” he said. “But on further reflection, certain things came to pass on that property that made me go back and look at it and reconnect with those individuals and look at it from a different set of opportunities.”

Blocher said after listening to others at the board meeting, he had second thoughts.

“This made me re-examine this opportunity and listen to what these folks had to say,” he said. “I’m asking you to look at this as an opportunity. What appealed to me was that they are an indoor operation. It’s very contained. They have prior experience and had already dealt with issues like water runoff, fertilizers and pesticide.”

Blocher added that the people who approached him were concerned about security.

“For me, that was a huge issue because of the homeless situation sitting there next to me, which despite all the talk is not going to be dealt with anytime soon. They were interested in bringing with them a security officer who would be on the property all night,” he said. “And they were going to pay for the security. There aren’t many tenants who build into their business model a $100,000 security officer. So, I just ask you to look at it as an opportunity, even though it’s messy and there’s a lot of paperwork. But it’s coming like a tsunami and you’re going to have to deal with it.”

JC Roddy, who is affiliated with the Coastal Growers Association and is production manager for Central Coast Garden Products, which makes pesticides to use on marijuana plants, spoke emotionally about the enforcement aspect and compassion.

“In 1996, I joined the United States Marine Corps and I was put on the border of Texas and Mexico to eradicate marijuana trafficking,” he said. “I was part of the task force that took the life of a U.S. citizen who was trafficking marijuana. He was the first U.S. citizen to be killed by U.S. forces since the Kent State shootings.”

Roddy said that he knew first-hand the fear of those at the meeting.

“We’re discussing medical marijuana and Assemblyman (Luis) Alejo discussed the bill that provides compassionate care to aid those near the end of their lives to stop their pain,” he said. “Medical marijuana can provide some of the same effects as the compassionate care act. By establishing regulations you establish control. While a ban will only enable the illegal market to continue to thrive. So, let’s consider what we’re banning and open this up for business for this county and realize there’s a difference between compassionate care and cartels.”

Elia Salinas, who has lived in San Benito County for 25 years, said in the 1980s she worked undercover with law enforcement and that her perspective about medical marijuana has changed.

“Now that I’ve seen medical marijuana can actually do, I think you should try to slow down this moratorium and get educated on it,” she said, then offering to accompany the board to legal marijuana groves. “The majority of the groves that I’ve seen from Northern California all the way down to San Diego are clean. They’re environmentally-friendly. And if you haven't had a tour of a dispensary, I can accompany you to one so you can actually get a personal view of what’s going on in this industry.”   

Supervisor Robert Rivas said he had a lot of issues with the ordinance and said it was unfortunate that the sheriff’s department was not at the meeting because it was an advocate of the proposed rules.

“I had a hard time buying into (this ordinance), learning about all these illegal operations in our county at our previous meeting where the sheriff’s department had a presentation that highlighted the illegal operations,” Rivas said. “I’m having a tough time making the correlation between this ordinance and preventing those illegal operations. If anything, this ordinance is a ban that doesn’t take into consideration a statewide initiative that will possibly make recreational use of marijuana legal.”

Rivas said he believes the ordinance will promote the continuance of this countywide, tax-free, illegal drug trade and that the process needs to slow down and take more time so supervisors can learn more about the issues.

“We studied fracking for six years before we came out with an ordinance,” he said. “What this deserves is honest, public debate. This ordinance has consequences from a public safety standpoint and an economic one. I think the process surrounding this decision that led to the creation of this particular ordinance has been done behind closed doors, with limited community input and the appropriate debate that’s supposed to occur after.”

Supervisor Anthony Botelho supported Rivas’ call to take more time in order to re-write a well-rounded ordinance.

“I’m not afraid to go back and try to make this ordinance work,” Botelho said. “I think it’s a great idea to sit down with Mr. Johnson and others who have made the offer to educate myself a little bit more on what they’re doing and how it fits in with what the state is trying to accomplish, as well as how we can control and regulate the activity in our own county. I’d rather come back and work a little bit more this and have a 5 to zero (vote) of this board, which is not so much us getting along as what it represents unity in the community.”

Supervisor Jerry Muenzer said he thought the original ordinance would deal with illegal operations while also allowing medical marijuana to be grown.

“I don’t know anything about marijuana,” he admitted. “I assumed that growing indoors was pretty much the same as growing outdoors. I have since learned it’s much more difficult to grow indoors. It takes a lot more expertise and I have concerns about that, so that part of the ordinance probably needs to be looked at.”

He said while he wants to give law enforcement the tools that they need, he doesn’t want to eliminate the ability of the people that need medical marijuana to grow it.

“I do think we’re not quite there yet with this ordinance. I request that a subcommittee be willing to reconvene and to discuss this with them to iron out some of the issues,” he said.

Supervisor Jaime De La Cruz said he felt the ordinance does not give law enforcement the tools it needs in order to control illegal activities.

“I cannot support this ordinance, however, in the public’s best interest I agree with Supervisor Rivas that we need more public input and have citizen meetings,” he said. “We need to understand that business component and the potential revenue to fix our roads. We need due diligence and full-blown public debate.”

Supervisor Margie Barrios was not convinced by the comments from the public or her fellow supervisors.

“I don’t think it matters what regulations you have, you’re not going to stop the illicit operations,” she said. “Law enforcement is going to have to deal with this no matter what regulations we have. The state is letting us keep local control, so my take on this is why should we wait to see what happens at the state level? Why don’t we do what’s best for San Benito County? We have local control. We can make our own regulations and ordinances to protect our environment, our children, so I still stand very strong on that decision.”

She agreed that the legalization of marijuana was most likely inevitable, but reminded those in the board room that recreational use of marijuana isn’t legal now.

“At this moment, there are one and a half pounds of marijuana being cultivated for every woman, man and child in California,” she said. “So you tell me people are waiting for it to be used for recreational purposes? No, it’s a very lucrative operation and it’s not being used for medical purposes. A pound and a half for every man, woman and child goes way beyond medical use.”

Barrios said the increase in marijuana in California is referred to as the “green rush.”

“It’s increased 100 percent to 140 percent in the last three years,” she said. “I’m concerned. I have children and grandchildren. I care about the kids in this community. I care about the health of our community.”

Therefore, she said she supports the ordinance as it stands and concluded: “I felt this ordinance needed to happen. It needed to happen sooner than later because we need to be in a position to regulate right now, not tomorrow, not next year.”

John Chadwell

John Chadwell is a freelance photojournalist with additional experience as a copywriter, ghostwriter, scriptwriter, and novelist. He is a former U.S. Navy Combat Photojournalist and is an award-winning writer, having worked for magazine, newspapers, radio and television. He has a BA in Journalism and Mass Communications from Chapman University and graduate studies at USC Cinema School. John worked as a scriptwriting consultant, and his own script, "God's Club," was produced and released in 2016. He has also written eight novels, ranging from science fiction to true crime, which are sold on Amazon. To contact John Chadwell, send an email to: [email protected]