Here's a question that can guide Sonoma County supervisors in their deliberations today on medical marijuana regulations:
Has the county benefited from allowing people to grow and possess more marijuana than allowed by state law?
We think not.
Sonoma County has an unwelcome reputation as a safe place for commercial growers. The result? Public and private land gets abused, rental homes become energy-eating greenhouses, and marijuana-related crime is steadily increasing.
"We're attracting a lot of people here who want to make a lot of money quick," Supervisor Shirlee Zane said. "This is a very lucrative industry, and it's got a lot of problems."
At first glance, this may seem to be a strange time to snuff out local marijuana rules. After all, Colorado and Washington just moved beyond medicinal use, enacting voter-approved laws allowing adults to light up for recreational purposes.
Legalization is increasingly popular, especially among younger Americans, according to public opinion polls. One day, it may prevail. For now, however, there's a conflict with federal law.
For 16 years, since the approval of Proposition 215, California has been at the forefront of the legal battles over medical marijuana laws. So far, the federal government has prevailed, and the Justice Department isn't backing down. The latest examples include a grand jury subpoena for information about Mendocino County's now-defunct regulatory program and efforts to seize property rented to a dispensary in Oakland.
We're ready to see someone else take a lead role in these legal battles, and that includes deferring to Sacramento for marijuana regulation in California.
The proposal being considered by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors today won't deny marijuana to any legitimate user. It won't put any of the county's dispensaries out of business. It simply repeals an ordinance allowing people to have as many as 30 plants and three pounds of pot.
State law allows six plants and eight ounces. In practice, however, there's no difference between state law and the county's rules. In 2010, the state Supreme Court ruled that people could have any amount of marijuana deemed "reasonably necessary" by a physician.
At the time, medical marijuana advocates hailed the decision as an important victory. "They gave us exactly what we wanted," Gerald F. Uelmen, a Santa Clara University law professor who argued the case, told the Los Angeles Times.
Sonoma County can't undermine that victory.
It can, however, crack down on grow houses, which are a nuisance in many neighborhoods, not to mention a fire hazard and, because of inordinate energy use, a source of greenhouse gas emissions. It would be illegal to grow pot in an unoccupied residential building under the county proposal.
That won't stop people from trying, but it will help distinguish between commercial and medical marijuana growing in Sonoma County.