El Dorado supervisors review medical marijuana regs | TahoeDailyTribune.com

El Dorado supervisors review medical marijuana regs

The Mountain Democrat

The El Dorado County Board of Supervisors recently directed staff to continue exploring possible changes to the county's medical marijuana ordinances — changes that could shift compliance from strictly law enforcement to a more a civil matter of code enforcement.

The directive comes as the county continues a review of its medical marijuana ordinances. Chief Administrative Office staff have been studying the local issue and studying the actions of 18 other counties as well as the cities of South Lake Tahoe and Placerville.

In general, most jurisdictions with similar geography and demographics are moving toward a process of treating compliance with their ordinances more as a civil matter of code enforcement and away from a strictly law enforcement perspective.

The board formed an advisory committee last March to consider a number of issues related to medical marijuana — cultivation, taxes and fees, compliance with laws and ordinances and "niche medical marijuana businesses." The committee has met six times with the public, county staff and various experts, principal analyst Creighton Avila explained. District 4 Supervisor Michael Ranalli and District 5 Supervisor Sue Novasel represent the board on the committee.

“We’ve talked this through and civil is the way to go. Juries are not convicting so the district attorney is not prosecuting. We’re focusing on large commercial operations.”Sheriff John D’Agostini

Ranalli said the committee is working toward "one consistent consensus" regarding the ordinance and described participants at various meetings. "Some are totally opposed to it and some want a free-for-all," he said. Despite "some contentious meetings," he added, "participants were really polite and I'm very proud of them."

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Ranalli noted that given the difference between treating violations as misdemeanors or as civil matters, "most are shifting toward civil (outcomes) such as fines."

Sheriff John D'Agostini addressed the board saying, "We've talked this through and civil is the way to go. Juries are not convicting so the district attorney is not prosecuting. We're focusing on large commercial operations."

Responding to District 1 Supervisor John Hidahl's question about finding a model for compliance, D'Agostini said, "All counties are still having problems. El Dorado County is a great place … to grow weed, but if you're not in compliance it will hurt and it needs to hurt. Word will get around on social media that we mean business."

Much of the work done relates to technical issues of enforcement and responsibility for enforcement of county ordinances. While primary responsibility rests with the Sheriff's Department, other county officers from Code Enforcement, Agriculture and Environmental Management divisions also have authority to enforce elements of the ordinances.

Three specific issues of enforcement were studied in the comparative counties — the complaint process, the verification process and the punishment process for code violations. In eight of the counties a complaint goes first to code enforcement. Six counties direct initial complaints to law enforcement departments, while one county may handle a complaint either through code enforcement or law enforcement. Other counties use either their agriculture departments or a Cannabis Licensing Office.

Butte, Tehama and Yuba counties are recognized as operating successful programs with terrain similar to that of El Dorado County. Compared to those three, El Dorado is the only county that "overtly singles out the Sheriff's Department as having primary responsibility," Avila said.

Eleven counties conduct their verification process with a combination of law enforcement and code enforcement while five use just law enforcement and one combines agriculture with its sheriff's department. Punishing violators is generally done (11 counties) through a combination of fines, related costs and potential liens on property if they are not paid. In four counties, fines and costs are levied against the violator while two others apply no fines but do prosecute. Three counties are still working on processes or do not yet have clear plans for prosecution.

Of the comparison counties, Avila told the Mountain Democrat, "Butte and Yuba probably have the most effective programs so far." They and Tehama County have procedures based on timelines of enforcement activities and include hearing officers to adjucate any appeals such as those commonly found with other code violations. El Dorado County's ordinance "mentions violations as misdemeanors," according to Avila's presentation.

The timelines or steps specified in the Butte ordinance, for example, may be avoided or waived "when any unlawful medical marijuana cultivation constitutes an immediate threat to the public health or safety." In such circumstances, "The enforcing officer may direct any officer or employee of the county to summarily abate the nuisance."

Butte and Yuba counties have six employees working as code compliance personnel. Tehama has four. El Dorado has two with one more in the hiring process.

"We have to prove to ourselves that we can enforce it," Ranalli concluded. "This ordinance won't enforce itself, so we'll have to (commit) to due diligence."

The supervisors decision to direct staff to continue investigating the best way to implement changes was unanimous. Avila emphasized that at this point the vote was for "conceptual" approval of any changes to the implementation.

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