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Tulare County to close medical marijuana dispensaries

Sheriff’s deputies visited Tulare County’s six medical marijuana dispensaries last Thursday to deliver a message: You have 10 days to comply with the county law or close your doors.

The only problem is the county’s new ordinance regulating dispensaries makes it impossible to comply, unless federal law changes to legalize medical marijuana. The county law states that, ‘The possession, consumption, distribution, transportation, cultivation and growing of medical marijuana in the unincorporated areas of the County of Tulare shall comply with federal law, state law and local ordinances and regulations.’ In effect, the law makes all dispensaries, or collectives and cooperatives, illegal operations in the county, although Deputy County Counsel Nina Dong would not go that far, only saying she could not comment on the legality of existing dispensaries.

Abraham Hernandez, who volunteers at the American Caregiver Facility at15492 Mineral King Suite 3 just north of Farmersville, said four deputies dropped off a copy of the ordinance last Thursday and told him that he had 10 days to comply.

‘I think the county’s law is very vague,’ Hernandez said. ‘We have been in compliance with the Attorney General’s guidelines for two years and we haven’t had any problems. If this is really about us being in violation of federal law, then it should be the FBI or DEA knocking on our door.’

California became one of 14 states that allow the use of medical marijuana when California voters passed Proposition 215, also known as the Compassionate Use Act, in 1996. The Last August, the California Attorney General’s Office released its guidelines ‘a properly organized and operated collective of cooperative that dispenses medical marijuana through a storefront may be lawful under California law,’

However, ‘Nothing in Proposition 215 or [Senate Bill 420] authorizes collectives, cooperatives, or individuals to profit from the sale or distribution of marijuana.’ The county contends that because the local dispensaries are operating for profit that they are in violation of state law.’

Jeff Nunes, Jr., president of the board of directors for the Medical Marijuana Awareness and Defense (MMAD) Information Center, said that his collective operates as a non-profit. Nunes said the collective, located at 31910 Road 160 in Ivanhoe, only collects enough money to cover the cost of growing, processing and distributing the marijuana allowed under state law.

‘Any money we make over our costs is the public’s money,’ Nunes said. ‘We have donated over $60,000 to local non-profits over the last two years.’

Nunes said the only reason MMAD isn’t legally a non-profit is because the IRS has not responded to the application it filed for non-profit status three years ago. He said MMAD is hoping to donate money to the research and development of medicinal marijuana at the state and regional level.

‘The county needs to stop looking at this as people getting high and start looking at it in a medical fashion,’ Nunes said. ‘Then we can get away from the persecution of people who actually have a medical need for marijuana.’

Nunes said the county should also tax the sale of the crop to generate revenue to help enforce the laws.

‘We think it’s a good ordinance but would like to work with the county to refine it,’ Nunes said. ‘We think the ordinance should do more to enforce good agricultural practices and how the crop should be stored and handled for health reasons.’

Until then, Nunes said he will continue to operate as he has for the last few years, and said he will stay open beyond Dec. 20 when deputies will return to enforce compliance of the new ordinance.

‘You can’t have a law that is impossible to comply with, that is illegal,’ Nunes said. ‘And if they want to try and enforce it, then we will just have to fight it in court.’

Hillside Collective, located at 960 Spruce Road in Tonyville, closed its doors on Dec. 4 to file an application for permit under the new ordinance. Hillside reopened on Dec. 12, but did not want to comment further on the ordinance or its plans to operate in the future.

The Board of Supervisors approved the ordinance at its Nov. 10 meeting. If federal law were to change, the county ordinance goes on to state that the cultivation, growing or distribution of medical marijuana is allowed ‘within a secure, locked, and fully enclosed structure, including a ceiling, roof or top and shall meet the following requirements,’ which included an exterior compatible with surrounding structures, signage limited to an address only, an alarm system monitored at all times, sufficient outdoor lighting. Only three dispensaries will be allowed within unincorporated areas at any time.

There are currently three dispensaries in the unincorporated areas of Tulare County. On Dec. 9, supervisors extended its year-long moratorium on new dispensaries due to an immediate threat to public health. The moratorium expires on Jan. 5, 2010.

The ordinance prohibits anyone from smoking at the dispensary and doesn’t allow any marijuana to be visible from outside the building.

The building must restrict smell, odor, smoke from marijuana. No one under the age of 18 is allowed on site unless accompanied by a licensed attending physician, parent or legal guardian. No person is allowed to cultivate marijuana for sale, which is illegal under both federal and state law.

The law limits the number of plants to 99 at a dispensary, six mature plants or 12 immature plants and no more than 8 ounces of dried marijuana per person. If convicted, a violation of the ordinance will be a misdemeanor charge.

Under the law, the Sheriff’s Department is authorized to investigate dispensaries to determine if they should be closed down, as well as monitor their activities and enforce county laws pertaining to possible violations.

The Tulare County Sheriff’s Department will review the business license application for dispensaries, just as he does for fortune tellers, junk dealers and dance halls. The Sheriff’s Department can require the applicant, anyone who works there, patients and primary caregivers to be fingerprinted and photographed. A dispensary that fails to meet any of the requirements will be declared a public nuisance by the Sheriff’s Department and prohibited from operating a dispensary for at least a year. If the dispensaries are deemed to be in compliance with county ordinances, the business will be required to renew its business license annually.

On Dec. 9, supervisors extended its year-long moratorium on new dispensaries due to an immediate threat to public health. The moratorium expires on Jan. 5, 2010. On May 1, 2007, Supervisors amended the zoning ordinance to regulate dispensaries. The law limits dispensaries to the same zones as drug stores and pharmacies, but restricted them to develop at least 1,000 feet from schools, parks and other dispensaries. It also required dispensaries to hid marijuana and related products from the public and prohibited them from displaying signs that portray people smoking marijuana.

By Reggie Ellis

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