The Merced County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously approved an ordinance limiting how much medical marijuana users can grow within the county.
The ordinance limits medical marijuana cultivation to 12 plants per parcel of land, regardless of the property’s size, whether it’s an indoor or outdoor garden, or the maturity of the plants.
Deputy Ray Framstad of the Merced County Sheriff’s Department said Tuesday the law won’t prevent medicinal users from cultivating marijuana several times a year as long as they don’t have more than 12 plants at one time.
County supervisors applauded the ordinance, saying it’s a necessary step in warding off drug trafficking operations in Merced County.
“Living out in the country my whole life, I can attest to there are grows out there we have no idea about,” said District 1 Supervisor John Pedrozo, who called the ordinance long-overdue.
District 4 Supervisor Deidre Kelsey said she realized the magnitude of illegal marijuana groves after she flew over her district in a sheriff’s helicopter.
“I was appalled. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” Kelsey said. “We don’t need this kind of thing in Merced County. It’s dangerous.”
Despite strong support from law enforcement and elected officials, a few medical pot users on Tuesday said the ordinance unfairly groups them with people who grow marijuana for profit.
“We’re getting punished for what other people are doing,” said Sue Mann. “The ones that are doing it illegally are making us look bad too. Me and my family have been doing this the right way for so long.”
The 31-year-old said she grows medical marijuana for herself and her parents, both in their 60s. They suffer from arthritis, depression and bipolar disorder. Mann is a survivor of cervical cancer.
Mann said the ordinance should allow 12 plants per user, not per parcel of land.
“They need to take into consideration the prescription of each person,” Mann said. “That would be more reasonable.”
“Some people can’t grow three times a year, they’re already sick,” she added. “It makes it more stressful for the patient.”
Framstad, a member of Merced County Sheriff’s Tactical And Reconnaissance team, said 12 marijuana plants will produce about 12 pounds of medicine. He said that amount is more than enough for personal use.
“Anything more than 12 pounds becomes an industrial operation and is way more than a medicinal user needs,” Framstad said.
Charles Erskine, 32, also a medical marijuana grower, said he supports the ordinance’s ability to fight large-scale operations, but doesn’t want it to penalize all users.
“My main thing is, don’t hurt the small guys that aren’t hurting anybody,” he said. “It’s ridiculous to lump drug traffickers with legitimate users.”
Erskine, who cultivates for himself and his parents, added that it’s not possible for users to grow outdoor marijuana plants year-round.
“I think they should have studied it a little further, because it’s a very vague way to go about it,” he said.
Several residents asked if the ordinance would hold landowners responsible for abatement costs. Many landowners might be unaware a tenant is growing on their land, they said.
Roger Matzkind, Merced County’s chief civil litigator, said the ordinance holds occupiers and property owners responsible if they knew or should have known about the activity.
“The idea is we want to make property owners responsible for things they knew or should have known,” Matzkind said. “The Sheriff’s Department will provide a warning notice to property owners or anyone who’s a responsible party. This is really no different than any other nuisance-type ordinance.”
The ordinance would carry stiffer civil and criminal penalties, including abatement and cleanup 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.
Sandra Locke, 70, a supporter of the ordinance, said she lives next door to a large marijuana-growing operation that has anywhere from 200 to 400 plants.
“I can barely breathe because of the marijuana plants,” Locke said. “When we’re watching TV in our family room, we see cars coming and going at all hours of the night. We’re really concerned for our safety.”
Locke said she believes the ordinance will help because it will stop her neighbors from cultivating large amounts of marijuana.
“I think it’s a good first step,” Locke said. “I don’t know what else we could do, but something’s got to be done.”
Sun-Star staff writer Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or firstname.lastname@example.org.