MERCED — Cracking down on Merced County's large-scale medical marijuana growing operations without stripping away legitimate users' rights is a hard line to draw but law enforcement officials think a proposed county ordinance does both.
The Merced County Board of Supervisors heard public comments about the ordinance at its Tuesday meeting, which proposes limiting medical marijuana cultivation to 12 plants per parcel, whether indoor or outdoor.
The supervisors unanimously approved moving forward with the ordinance, setting a final public hearing for next month.
A handful of people voiced support for the ordinance Tuesday, including Merced resident Glenna Havercroft. She described what she endures living between two medical marijuana growing operations.
"It has brought a stench to our neighborhood," Havercroft said. "The most important thing they bring here is fear. I don't sit out on the porch anymore. I sit inside my house with the doors locked."
Winton resident David Ortiz agreed, sharing concerns of "drive-by shootings and pedestrians being shot" in his neighborhood because of the large plantings.
Joe Mendez, a Hilmar resident, had a different perspective.
Mendez said he never thought he'd be a supporter of medical marijuana until he witnessed the positive effects it had on his late wife, who suffered from bipolar disorder.
"The only time I ever saw her be normal was when she was medicated by marijuana," Mendez said. "I now raise my kids by myself."
Law enforcement officials stressed that the ordinance targets large marijuana groves.
Deputy Ray Framstad of the Merced County Sheriff's STAR Team, showed pictures of several large-scale operations on Tuesday, including one yielding 17,000 plants and was run by drug traffickers from outside the state.
"These people are here to make money. Their whole goal is to profit by using Merced County as a grow site," Framstad said. "Then they ship (the product) to other states for profit."
Framstad said the ordinance will hold property owners responsible, many of whom tell agents they had "no idea" a tenant was cultivating marijuana. He said illegal growing operations have negative environmental impacts, such as toxic chemicals in waterways, and were responsible for 14 house fires in 2013.
Amanda Carvajal, Merced County Farm Bureau executive director, said runoff water from the illegal groves has harmful effects on nearby landowners.
"You can have guys who are on their best behavior, doing everything right, then you have some guy down the road dropping toxins in the water," Carvajal said. "And these landowners get in trouble."
County supervisors Tuesday seemed to support the ordinance, with District 1 Supervisor John Pedrozo calling it "long overdue." District 4 Supervisor Deidre Kelsey said she hoped the ordinance would reduce the number of sites allowed near schools.
Atwater High School Principal Alan Peterson said he's noticed a 20 percent rise in drug and alcohol infractions at the school and supports countywide restrictions.
"The county needs a strong and clear ordinance in regard to medical marijuana," Peterson said. "You want to minimize the availability and the effect it has on our students."
The new ordinance would carry stiffer civil and criminal penalties, including abatement and clean-up at the owner's expense, an administrative procedure resulting in penalties or a misdemeanor charge resulting in six months in jail and-or a $1,000 fine.
A final public hearing is set for 10 a.m. on Sept. 10. County supervisors will consider adopting the ordinance.
Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or email@example.com.
By The Numbers
How much marijuana is produced from 12 plants?
12 six-inch plants equal about 12 pounds, or 5,448 grams
1 gram equals about two cigarettes
12 pounds equals about 10,896 cigarettes
908 cigarettes per month
30 cigarettes per day
* Federal DEA estimates one plant can produce ½ pound to 2 pounds per plant