Potential Pot Moratorium May Achieve Few Results

By Steven Tavares

The number of San Leandro residents illegally growing marijuana is so high placing a citywide land-use moratorium on dispensaries and large-scale growing facilities may accomplished little to stem the tide of cannibis production in the city.

“There is hundreds of homes growing [marijuana] in San Leandro,” Det. Dan Fernandez of the San Leandro Police Department Narcotics Division said Monday. “It could be our only job.”

Councilwoman Joyce Starosciak asked Fernandez, during Monday’s city council work session, how many residents are growing illegally. “It’s irrelevant,” he said. “There are so many. Sometimes we act too quickly to the detriment of the case. It’s our philosophy to hit them quick and get them out.”

Not included is an unspecified number of residents who under Proposition 215 can legally possess, with a physician-approved card, a small number of plants for personal use of medical marijuana. Many growers, according to Fernandez, use the medical marijuana card as cover for illegal activity. “The card is not the biggest issue,” he said. “Possession is not the problem. Large-scale distribution is the problem.” Fernandez was adamant in saying “nobody is enforcing possession.”

At issue is the city attorney office and staff who believe San Leandro is in legal “limbo” regarding land-use and possible building permits. Businesses interested in opening dispensary and large-scale grow centers in the city may put it in a legal quandry and expose it to litigation, said City Manager Stephen Hollister. The Council will vote on placing a moratorium on medical marijuana business Nov. 15. Staff has recommended the longest possibly moratorium of 22 months and 15 days, although there appears to be support for a shorter 10 month, 15 day moratorium with an option of extending it for another year. Both Starosicak and Councilwoman Diana Souza expressed support for the longer moratorium.

Fernandez said a crazy-quilt of laws and regulations make enforcement difficult. “We should legalize it or not and takeaway the gray area,” he said. “It’s not my fight.” Often the liability risks involved in destroying pot plants outweighs pursuing potential illegal activity. “If it smells like sales and distribution and you can’t prove it, you walk away,” said Fernandez, who noted cutting down plants might cost the department upwards of $100,000 in damages.

While Fernandez’s testimony was both illuminating and shocking, several councilmembers may have responded to it differently. Many councilmembers were visibly shocked by the news of wide-spread illegal cultivation in San Leandro. “If it’s so prevalent, it seems this moratorium is irrelevant and almost delaying the inevitable,” said Mayor Tony Santos.

Councilman Bill Stephens called the issue the “most perplexing” issue he has faced in a long time. “We’re telling quasi-legitimate businesses you can’t do business here,” said Stephens, “and, instead, we’re helping people to continue doing it illegally.”
The specter of increased crime from small-scale illegal is what prompted Oakland to recently permit the four large-scale warehouse for medical marijuana production, noted Councilman Jim Prola. “It’s safer to have larger grow facilities than these small growers,” said Prola since regulated businesses tend to employ their private security to protect their property. Prola also equated the current social atmosphere regarding marijuana to the prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s.

San Leandro Police Chief Ian Willis said expansion of land-use would “make the problem bigger.” Because of continuing budget cuts to the city’s police department Willis said public safety would be compromised by allowing medical marijuana to thrive. “I would expect an increase in crime and the flow of narcotics through the city,” he said.

There is currently a moratorium on medical marijuana dispensaries in San Leandro. But, a spate of recently legislation and related pending litigation in state court has put many municipalities on the alert to tie up any possibility loopholes in their government regulations. Earlier this year, a handful of medical marijuana large-scale growers approached the city with interest in expanding their operations in San Leandro. Some reports claimed growing facilities could fetch the city $5 million in much-needed tax revenue.