Mixed Reviews For Arcata’s Pot Code – July 21, 2010

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Daniel Mintz

Eye Correspondent

ARCATA – Arcata’s Land Use Code on medical marijuana cultivation is seen as a regulatory model but the City’s planning director gives it “mixed reviews” for effectiveness.

The shortcoming, said Community Development Director Larry Oetker, lies not with the code itself but with having local governments regulate cannabis production.

“It needs to be regulated statewide and that burden should not be passed onto local governments,” Oetker said. “Anyone who thinks they have the capacity to do that is not thinking clearly, it’s too big a burden and having different standards makes no sense.”

Oetker is nevertheless “quite proud” of Arcata’s response to the demand for controlling the production of marijuana in the City’s residential neighborhoods.

The code, adopted in December, 2008, limits residential marijuana growing space to 50 feet (although up to 100 square feet may be allowed if personal medical conditions call for it), caps lighting at 1,200 watts and bans sales out of homes.

It also regulates co-ops and dispensaries. The control of residential growing has been more of an issue but Oetker thinks the code’s dispensary regulation aspect is more important because it sets up a system for non-residential cultivation.

The County is using Arcata’s code as a model for a new medical marijuana ordinance and the state’s Attorney General’s Office has referred to it as an innovative approach.

But how well has it worked in practice?

“It’s a big issue and we haven’t solved the marijuana problem in Arcata with this set of rules, because we could only tackle certain aspects of this problem,” Oetker said.

The issues involved with residential cultivation are “bigger than the City of Arcata,” he continued. And there are also issues with using laws to control an aspect of the City’s culture.

“A lot of this is simply a matter of lifestyle choices – and I’m not in the business of changing lifestyles,” Oetker said.

The residential part of the code has been enforced 10 times and inspections have mostly uncovered electrical violations, Oetker reported. One case is still outstanding but the others have been cleared, with violations fixed.

Most of the inspections that resulted in enforcement actions were done with the assistance of police, said Oetker, but he didn’t know if any criminal cases were launched because “that’s not our purview.”

But he added that if “illegal activities” are noticed, they’re reported to police.

Oetker’s department works with the county Drug Task Force along with fire, building and land use departments in investigations. The probes stem from complaints and when they’re verified, the property owner or resident believed to be in violation of the code is sent a letter asking to set up an inspection.

Oetker said that most of the time, an inspection is agreed to but when it isn’t, police become involved.

Either way, if an inspection shows no violations, the case is closed. But if building and/or fire officials see things that are wrong – including out-of-code electrical and lighting rigs – PG&E is called in to shut off electricity.

The power stays turned off until the building official confirms that the violations are cleared. If violations remain outstanding long enough, a Notice to Abate Nuisance can be issued and the City Council can declare the property a public nuisance and levy fines.

Oetker’s department concentrates on land use compliance. “We play a crucial role but we’re not police,” he said. “Our job is to get the property back to a residential use.”

Controversy over residential cultivation has quieted somewhat. “We’re not getting the same level of complaints,” Oetker said. But he added, “I still believe there’s the same level of concern in the community.”

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