Supervisors vote 4-1 to ban cannabis

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Supervisors vote  4-1 to ban cannabisAfter months of study, and four hours of presentations, testimonies and deliberation on Tuesday, the Kern County Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 to ban cultivation and sale of cannabis in the unincorporated areas of the county.

Kern joins 29, out of 58, counties in California to ban the sale of recreational cannabis, though each of those cases vary in the allowance of cultivation. Of the remaining counties, 10 have voted to regulate, and 18 have not yet taken action.

The 28 medical marijuana dispensaries deemed legitimate by Kern County will now be allowed to apply for a one-year operator’s license from the state. The board also expressed an interest in finding a long-term means of accommodating patients in Kern County with a legitimate medical need for cannabis.

Kern County Planning and Natural Resources Director Lorelei Oviatt first presented to the board, back in August, options to ban or regulate commercial cultivation and sale of cannabis. She noted in both recent presentations that since California passed the “Compassionate Care Act” in 1996 to allow medical marijuana use, the state has provided virtually no guidelines or oversight, leaving local governments and law enforcement with the difficult job of juggling conflicting state and federal policies.

With the 2016 vote of the public to legalize recreational use, the state granted county and local governments the autonomy to ban or regulate the controversial product.

Oviatt’s department ended up recommending to the board a plan that allowed the county to regulate cannabis — potentially developing a significant new revenue stream and creating thousands of new jobs.

While the majority of some 40 members of the public appeared to support this recommendation, most departmental directors cited to the board their concerns relating to public health and safety challenges anticipated with greater access to marijuana — particularly regarding young people.

Bill Walker, director of Kern Behavioral Health and Recovery Services, cited studies that show how cannabis use can prevent executive functions from fully developing in the adolescent brain. Those first exposed to use in childhood are also at a much higher risk for psychiatric and psychotic conditions, he said.

He added that the most effective methods of prevention are not through education or persuasion alone, but by raising the costs, limiting availability and restricting use in young people.

“One thing we haven’t discussed is that this is still a federal felony,” said Sheriff Donny Youngblood. “If we choose to regulate, we are giving people permission to commit a felony. As a law enforcement officer I find that particularly troubling.”

He shared with the board the volume of calls his department deals with relating to problems that arise in the vicinity of dispensaries. Because of the cash-only nature of the venture, “pot shops” are a frequent target of theft, assault and other violent crimes.

Youngblood said that whether the county votes to ban or regulate, the illegal element will remain. “If we choose to regulate, we send a message to our youth that [marijuana use] is okay. In my opinion, that’s a really scary message to send.”

He said that he was concerned about those who point to the financial benefit as a reason to allow cultivation and sales in the county. “When people go into the drug business, it’s to make money … no matter how much people are willing to pay, I’m not willing to go down that road.”

Russell Judd, CEO of Kern Medical Center, pointed to the increase in injury, illness and accidents tied to marijuana use. “At KMC, we are the ones who pick up the pieces.”

If the county decides to regulate, he requested additional funding for the uncompensated care his facility anticipates providing.

Based on the numbers coming out of Colorado following legalization, he said that Kern could expect to see an additional 600-700 emergency room visits annually, each coming with a price tag of up to $15,000. “That’s millions of dollars.”

Renee Westa-Lusk of Ridgecrest was among the members of the public who testified. “I was exposed to the side effects of someone smoking cannabis when I was a senior in high school and have been running away from it ever since.”

She said that the smoke and the smell triggers nausea and asthma for her, and she wants to see the board restricting use in public spaces to protect citizens.

Gleason asked Oviatt what happens to medical marijuana users after the one-year operation licenses expire. Oviatt said that medical users can grow up to six plants (indoors) for personal use.

“The question is not whether or not you are going to have marijuana use in your neighborhood — because you are,” said Gleason.

He said that every leader of the cities, law enforcement agencies and school districts in his 1st District have urged him to ban cannabis. The majority of county voters also opposed the state initiative to legalize recreational use in 2016. And statistics from Colorado have shown a rise in social challenges ranging from homelessness to impaired driving to medical issues to crime.

“In the final analysis, this decision — for me — is not financial,” said Gleason. While he understands the opportunity for revenue, in the long run he does not want to compromise public health and safety.

An attorney representing the interest of the marijuana industry said that citizens can circulate a petition to put the issue up for a vote by the public.

County counsel Mark Nations acknowledged that the county could also put on the ballot an initiative representing the interests of the county.

The county’s action does not impact municipalities. Ridgecrest (along with all other municipalities in the 1st District) voted to ban medical marijuana dispensaries before the 2016 initiative was introduced.

On Tuesday, the Planning Commission made a recommendation to urge the City Council to ban all cultivation and sales, as well as use in public spaces. The item is expected to appear on the Nov. 1 council agenda.

Story First Published: 2017-10-27