- Posted by Ryan Reaves
- On June 30, 2017
- Ban, cannabis, Central Valley, commercial cannabis, cultivation, Fresno, licensing, medical cannabis, regulation, Tulare
Cannabis, Advocacy, and Central Valley Politics
Fresno County and the City of Fresno, making up a mixed rural and metropolitan area of at least 900,000 people, may likely be the most populated county of California uniformly pushing to ban commercial cannabis activities. In comparison, as much larger San Diego County has also maintained a prohibitionist stance against cannabis, the incorporated City of San Diego along with adjoining La Mesa are moving forward with retail dispensaries and indoor cultivation, expanding safe access opportunities for nearly 1.5 million people.
The Central San Juaquin Valley, nestled halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, has long been known for its conservative politics. The region is the agricultural center of California, with the City of Fresno surrounded on all sides by thousands of acres of farmland. Fresno County Supervisors have openly pushed for incorporated cities to replicate the county’s ban on commercial cannabis in order to establish consistent policies throughout the region. A Fresno City Council meeting on Thursday June 22, 2017 ended in a narrow 4-3 decision to ban commercial cannabis after two hours of impassioned discussion between Council members and pro-cannabis advocates in attendance.
Fresno’s Turbulent Relationship with Cannabis
The bill to ban commercial cannabis activities in the City of Fresno was authored by Councilman Garry Bredefeld and co-authored by Mayor Lee Brand. The bill will ban dispensaries, delivery services, commercial cultivation, manufacturing, and public consumption. Fresno also maintains that the six plants which can be grown by adults for personal use under the Medicinal and Adult-Use Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act, or MAUCRSA, must be kept indoors in a locked space. Currently, outdoor cultivation in Fresno County can result in a fine of $1,000 per plant.
Fresno is no stranger to political dramas surrounding cannabis and safe access. In 2014, the ACLU filed lawsuits on behalf of medical cannabis patients seeking to reverse the complete ban on medical cannabis cultivation and dispensary operations. In September 2014, the superior court ruled on Byrd v. Fresno that because medical cannabis patients “may be entitled to injunctive and declaratory relief, it was not necessary for the court to issue the requested writ of mandate”. The plaintiffs appealed the superior court decision but, it was affirmed by the Court of Appeals, and a review of this decision was denied by the California Supreme Court in 2016. In Kirby v. Fresno, “Wykowski & Associates filed suit in 2014 in Fresno County Superior Court on behalf of 73-year old patient Diana Kirby… after the superior court dismissed the suit, the Court of Appeals reversed on the ground that violation of the ban by qualified patients could not be punished criminally, but otherwise upheld most of the ban.” Similarly to Byrd v. Fresno, the California Supreme Court denied review of the decision in February 2016.
In the midst of the ACLU lawsuits, and as Fresno actively maintained strict bans and penalties on commercial and medical cannabis activities, the assistant chief of police for the city of Fresno was arrested following a joint FBI and ATF investigation. Deputy Chief Keith Foster was arrested in March 2015 and found guilty in May 2017 for conspiring to distribute heroin and cannabis, with the jury hung on six other charges. Deputy Foster was initially arrested with three others for possession for distribution of heroin, cannabis, and oxycodone.
Although the Fresno City Council voted to maintain a ban on commercial cannabis, the decision narrowed to just a single vote. Councilwoman Esmeralda Soria, Councilman Oliver Baines, and Council President Clint Olivier voted against the ban, giving hope to local advocates that a vote on any future bill may swing in favor of regulation.
Hope for Neighboring Tulare County
Tulare County sits just south of Fresno County in an area historically referred to as the Tulare Lake Basin. Although Tulare County has in effect a moratorium on any new commercial cannabis operations until December 2018, the region is heavily agricultural and community leaders have taken note of the counties potential to participate in commercial cannabis cultivation. The stark difference between Fresno and Tulare counties is that Tulare has medical collective dispensaries and cultivators under the Prop-215 model who, although unable to expand under the moratorium, will be allowed to continue operating. County Supervisors want to “wait and see” for the policies and regulations produced by other counties before Tulare moves forward. In the meantime, collectives in Tulare County will continue to provide safe access for their communities. CannaCanHelp Inc., a collective cultivator operating in a warehouse in Goshen, reported $5.6 million in sales in 2016. Unincorporated Tulare County has the space and affordable land values to support large green house cultivation and is strategically positioned for distribution between major markets to the north and south.
Ryan Reaves is a Policy Analyst for CannaBusiness Law and Master of Public Policy candidate at Mills College in Oakland, California.
6/30/17 3:00PM: Updated Kirby v. Fresno information to include reversal by the appellate court.