November 2014 Election: Marijuana Sees Big Losses in Rural California
by Derek P. Cole on January 19, 2015
Efforts to legalize marijuana continued to pick up steam in last November’s elections with voters in Oregon, Alaska, and Washington, D.C., approving legalization measures. Most expect California voters to follow suit in 2016.
Considering this trend, one is tempted to conclude that marijuana is on an unstoppable winning streak at the polls. A closer look reveals this may not be the case.
In November, voters in three rural counties defeated measures intended to repeal or relax local marijuana cultivation standards. All three measures were supported by patient advocates who claimed the ordinances interfered with their access to medical marijuana. Voters in the three counties were not persuaded.
Rural California: the State’s Marijuana Greenhouse?
Some background is helpful in understanding these election results.
California voters endorsed the use of marijuana for medical purposes in 1996 with the passage of Proposition 215. Contrary to popular belief, this initiative did not “legalize” marijuana for medical use. It provided only that those who have a legitimate medical need for marijuana, and who possess a reasonable amount of the drug, have immunity from criminal prosecution.
The scope of Proposition 215 was expanded with the Legislature’s passage of the Medical Marijuana Program Act in 2004. This legislation, enacted by a bill eponymously designated as “SB 420,” expanded the Proposition 215 immunity to encompass groups of people who “collectively or cooperatively” cultivate marijuana.
Soon after the SB 420 legislation was passed, marijuana “dispensaries” began opening in urban areas to serve “collectives” and “cooperatives.” Because these operations often occurred in storefronts, the marijuana usually could not be grown on site, but had to be imported from elsewhere. And much of the time, that was from rural areas. With their wide open lands, sparse populations, favorable growing conditions, and cheap land prices, rural counties quickly became the preferred grow sites for dispensaries throughout the state.
Rural counties immediately began seeing the effects of this trend. With the influx of cultivation sites came zoning violations, environmental degradation, and overdraft of streams, rivers, and water bodies. Itinerant workers associated with grow sites often lived in illegal camp sites or recreational vehicles, creating health and safety concerns. Law enforcement problems increased, including shootings and attacks involving aggressive guard dogs.
Rightly concerned about these impacts, many rural counties responded by enacting ordinances significantly restricting and sometimes banning marijuana cultivation. Legal challenges ensued, but courts ultimately rejected those, finding that Proposition 215 and SB 420 did not displace traditional municipal and zoning powers.
The 2014 Ballot Measures
Consistent with this legal authority, three counties in late 2013 or 2014 enacted or amended ordinances strictly limiting marijuana cultivation. In the November 2014 election, attempts to repeal these ordinances were rejected by wide margins.
- Shasta County
Measure A, a referendum, sought to repeal an ordinance that limited the marijuana that may be grown outdoors to 12 plants. The ordinance also required that cultivation occur only inside a lawful, detached structure and that at least one patient or caregiver reside on the property. The ordinance was ratified by 58% of the voters.
- Lake County
Measure O effectively sought to replace an ordinance enacted in December 2013. This ordinance limited cultivation for personal marijuana grow sites to an area of 100 square feet and for collective or cooperative grow sites allowed a maximum of 48 mature plants and 72 immature plants. Measure O would have relaxed many of the prohibitions of this ordinance and would have allowed for many more plants to be cultivated. Voters rejected this Measure by a margin of 61% to 39%. Another initiative on the ballot, Measure P, purported to restore a “fundamental right to garden,” and would effectively have nullified much of the same ordinance. That was rejected by a wider margin, 66% to 34%.
- Butte County
Measure A, a referendum, sought to repeal an ordinance passed in February 2014. Among other things, this ordinance established a graduated scale of growing-area limitations based on property size. A maximum cultivation area of 150 square feet was permitted for properties greater than 10 acres in size. The vote to retain this ordinance was 60% in favor to 40% against. Measure B, a separate initiative to effectively replace the ordinance with standards that would allow the growing of up to 99 plants on some properties, was rejected by nearly two-thirds of voters.
What do These Results Mean?
These election results provide a clearer picture of the level of support that exists for marijuana legalization. While California voters generally believe people should have the right to legally use marijuana (not just for medical, but recreational purposes), they do not agree this right may be enjoyed without regard for the rights of others. Even in three of California’s more politically conservative counties, voters in November expressed their preference that marijuana land uses yield to local zoning, environmental, and health and safety regulations.
If legalization is to succeed in this State, any initiative the voters consider must ensure their local governments will continue to have these rights. In a state known for its fondness for government regulation, voters surely will not approve an initiative that leaves an entire industry—and that is what marijuana production has become—unregulated.