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Mendocino County suspends pot permit program


Mendocino County's one-of-a-kind, income-generating medical marijuana cultivation permit process has been suspended pending the outcome of a Southern California court case that challenges the legality of issuing permits for activities that are illegal under federal law.

"We're waiting to hear something," said Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman.

The popular permits allowed medical marijuana collectives to as many as 99 plants under a fee structure that includes inspections and zip-tie identification markers for each plant.

The annual permit application and initial inspection cost $1,500, with each zip tie issued costing $50. Monthly inspections cost from $300 to $600 a month, said Sheriff's Sgt. Randy Johnson, who oversees the program.

Last year, 94 people signed up for the program, which generated $663,230 for the Sheriff's Office in July through December, officials said.

Faced with potential legal liabilities, the county counsel has advised the sheriff to suspend the permits this year, pending the outcome of Pack versus Superior Court of Los Angeles. A state appellate court has ruled that the permitting process in that case exceeded local government auhthority to regulate marijuana.

The case is pending before the California Supreme Court, which has until Feb. 8 to decide whether to hear it. The dispute stems from a challenge to the city of Long Beach, which adopted an ordinance requiring permits for medical marijuana collectives. Like Mendocino County, it charged fees for its permits. It has since repaid permit holders an estimated $700,000, said Mendocino County Counsel Jeanine Nadel.

"I don't want our county to be in that situation," she said, in explaining her recommendation to suspend issuing permits.

The county's pot-growing permits have been a hit among marijuana growers but not all of them think it's a good or fair idea.

The program "only taxed the sick," said Jim Hill, a member of the Mendocino Medical Marijuana Advisory Committee. He compared it to "installing parking meters only on handicapped spaces."

Regardless of the outcome of the Pack case, he said the county should expect legal challenges if it reinstates the program.

Supervisor Dan Hamburg, a medicinal marijuana patient, also is not keen on the program, which was adopted before he joined the board last year. He said its promoters, including Supervisor John McCowen and Sheriff Tom Allman, meant well but the ordinance is overly ambitious given that cultivating pot remains illegal under federal law.

"I've said for a long time I thought (it) was painting too big a target on our backs," he said.

Federal authorities have raided at least two cooperatives that had Mendocino County permits. The federal search warrant for Northstone Organics in Redwood Valley included a photo of a banner with the county permit number, which is visible from the air, said its founder, Matt Cohen.

McCowen said he's dismayed over the federal crackdown on people who are trying to make sense of jumbled medical marijuana laws. Federal authorities threatened legal action against landlords who rent to dispensaries and sent letters to officials in several cities, including Eureka and Chico, notifying them that ordinances they enacted or planned to enact are illegal under federal law.

"The intent seems to be to drive medical marijuana back underground and destroy the attempts of local governments to regulate medical marijuana consistent with state law in a way that best protects public safety and the environment," McCowen said.