After nearly two decades of legalized medical marijuana in California there is a sudden mad dash among valley communities to establish local regulations and bans. But do the bans actually drive growers and dispensaries out of business? Valley Public Radio takes a look.
In a small nondescript house in Merced, Darcy Louise Johnson looks over the dozens of marijuana plants growing in the garage.
“They are healthy. They are green. You can see some of the leaves are shimmery from an oil I sprayed on them,” Johnson said showing off her plants.
Johnson and Christine Meeusen, who go by the names Sister Darcy and Sister Kate, harvest the plants to make salves, teas and tinctures high in CBD.
That’s a chemical in marijuana that does not get a person high but that some believe has positive health benefits.
They aren’t affiliated with the any church but they wear clean white habits, claim a spiritual motivation, and call themselves ‘sisters’, hence the name of their company ‘Sisters of the Valley’.
Since April, they have been shipping products all over the world and were busy trying to keep up with demand when I met them.
“Postal code says you have to vacuum seal it” Johnson said.
Sister Kate, who previously ran a medical marijuana delivery company, is baffled by the bans.
“At this moment in time the police could come in here and take away the 24 baby CBD plants we have in our garage. And take away our things. But I don’t think the DA would charge us. I don’t think a judge would convict us. So it would kind of be a waste of tax payer money,” Sister Kate explained.
She continues to operate with full knowledge that she is violating city rules, but doubts the police would ever break down her door.
“They know it is morally wrong to block safe access. Fresno knows it. Turlock knows it. And Merced knows it,” Meeusen said.
Many communities in the valley are acting quickly to pass bans to prevent people like the Sisters and from growing or selling medical marijuana.
Merced is one of the communities that recently passed a new law to ban medical marijuana dispensaries and cultivation.
City Councilman Joshua Pedrozo says a new state law regulating medical pot put pressure on the council to make a decision before March and passing a ban seemed like the simplest approach.
He says the city could revisit the issue at a later date.
“Really it is a placeholder to have a discussion if we want to have it later in the future. So we can maintain control if we want to bring medical marijuana dispensaries and grows into the city,” Pedrozo said.
However, Pedrozo acknowledges that even with outright bans in place it’s nearly impossible to prevent people from growing or to keep speakeasy style dispensaries from opening.
That is part of the thinking that drove the Coalinga City Council to take the opposite approach.
The town of 19,000 on the western side of Fresno County is one of few in the valley to say ‘yes, we will allow dispensaries’.
Councilmember Nathan Vosburg says the decision was an easy one, driven by public demand for the businesses.
“By putting it at the storefront, that way people could go and by it there. Because obviously if they can’t get it there they are going to get it somewhere else. And if you get it somewhere else, these are the same people that deal drugs to kids,” Vosburg said.
Vosburg also cites an economic incentive behind the move.
The city can collect taxes as residents from banned areas flock to Coalinga to buy marijuana.
While many cities are just now joining the banning party, Fresno city and county have had plans in place sometime.
“We have seized 3,220 plants to date since the ordinance was enacted. So I would say it is very successful having the ordinance in effect,” said Fresno Police Lt. Mike Brogdon.
Brogdon says seizing the plants has led to the city issuing more than $3,000,000 in fines.
However, to date less than $8,000 has actually been collected. It’s a similar story in Fresno County which has issued around $2,000,000 in fines but has collected less than $10,000.
Brogdon says they mostly find outdoor grows by air, or stumble upon indoor grows with tips or while investigating other issues.
But closing down the dispensaries has proven tougher.
Through a little leg work and some internet searches, I was able to find at least one store front dispensary in central Fresno and numerous delivery services. None would speak on the record for this story.
Lt. Brogdon says the dispensaries are very clandestine and the FPD only responds to citizen complaints, but even when they confirm one exists it typically just picks up and moves somewhere else.
“(So it’s kind of like a game of whack a mole?) Yes, you could describe it as that. The most successful ones, they don’t want to be out of the business so they will just move around,” Brogdon said.
For their part, the Sisters of the Valley say they will keep growing regardless of what Merced eventually decides.
And medical marijuana advocates say that is part of the problem with a ban… it is ineffective and simply drive the medical marijuana trade into the black or gray market.
We will hear more from them, and the people who still search for and find banned medical pot, in part two of our story.