Complaints fuel medical marijuana compliance checks
September 21, 2012
Editor's note: The homeowners targeted by compliance checks have not been identified, as they all are appealing their citations.
It's the height of the growing season for marijuana growers. And what traditionally is an extremely busy time for the Nevada County Sheriff's Office has become even more so this year now that the department has been tasked with conducting compliance checks to enforce the county's new cultivation ordinance.
The controversial urgency ordinance was enacted in May by the county's Board of Supervisors and is intended to regulate legal grows from a nuisance standpoint. The ordinance limits the size of grows depending on zoning, setbacks and plot size and imposes other restrictions such as security fencing.
Since a Nevada County Superior Court judge refused to block the ordinance in late July, the Narcotics Task Force has been ramping up the number of compliance checks and the department has added two full-time deputies to the ordinance detail.
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"The Sheriff felt strongly that we needed to get this going," said Lt. Steve Tripp. "We've got two guys now doing nothing but compliance checks. We didn't want to wait any longer; we wanted to get the ball rolling."
According to Under-Sheriff Joe Salazar, the Sheriff's Office has received 180 violation complaints from the public through phone calls and emails, the majority of which came through the anonymous crime tip hotline.
As of Tuesday, the ordinance detail had made 45 site visits and has issued 27 abatement notices and 18 verbal warnings. Two growers elected to self-abate, and one of those turned into a criminal complaint. Of the 27 abatement notices, 11 growers have filed an appeal.
"With the amount of complaints we've had, it's been very hard to keep up," said a task force spokesman, adding that the number of complaints seems to have increased since the ordinance was implemented. "They'll call with specific violations, like the lack of a fence, or the smell."
Checks fueled by complaints
Last week, two task force members spent most of one morning on two compliance checks; Tripp estimated each one could take about 45 minutes.
The task force allegedly had received numerous anonymous complaints regarding the first residence off Highway 49 near Alta Sierra,
"It's very important to comply with the ordinance," one deputy told the homeowner. "We'll check the garden, If you are out of compliance, we'll serve you with paperwork … Right off the bat, I see a couple of issues. First off, there is absolutely no fencing. There
has to be a security fence with a lock."
The deputy went on to explain that in order to limit problems with her neighbors, she couldn't have plants that can be seen from a roadway.
"It just can't be blatant," he told her. "I'm guessing you're over the size limitation."
Because this particular property was just under four acres, the grow could only be 75 square feet, he told her.
After measuring two separate garden areas and a patio with plants in pots, the deputies informed the property owner that her grow was in excess of 3,000 square feet.
"Can you tell me why this is a nuisance to my neighbors?" the homeowner asked the deputy.
"I'm not here to debate that with you," he said. "As of now, this is the law of the county … You have five days to come into compliance. Or you can file an appeal with the county, and they'll set up a hearing for you."
"Or you'll huff and you'll puff and you'll blow my plants down?" she responded.
"I'll come out with cutters," he replied.
Later, the woman speculated on the identity of the complainant, adding that she grows because she is in constant pain from a riding accident.
"This is my medicine," she said this week. She said she had retained an attorney and will file an appeal.
At the second residence, in Lake of the Pines, the resident was out of compliance because he was growing outdoors on his deck, which is prohibited for a parcel of less than 2 acres.
The tenant, who said he grows for two kidney dialysis patients, already had retained an attorney.
"I'm being extremely quiet and discreet," he said.
"I don't know what to do.
I'm not really breaking any laws. I'm not creating a nuisance. This is really nerve wracking to me."
"We're not going to arrest you today, and we're not going to take your plants today," the deputy reassured him, telling him he could come into compliance or file an appeal.
Both growers complained that they had been unfairly targeted with complaints by neighbors with a beef in what is becoming a common theme among those who have been cited for violating the ordinance.
The neighbor of one medical marijuana grow allegedly turned her in — but not before first sending her a fake abatement letter with Nevada County Sheriff's Office "letterhead."
The bogus notice informed her that she was in violation of the cultivation ordinance, as well as state and federal law, and informed her that she was required to immediately abate her marijuana.
"We thought it was real," said the woman, who has Hodgkin's lymphoma.
"We did pull up some plants."
The week after the family received the letter — which they reported to law enforcement — deputies did a compliance check on their garden and found it to be out of compliance.
She has since filed an appeal; the neighbor apparently will not face charges.
To contact Staff Writer Liz Kellar, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (530) 477-4229.