Medical marijuana laws are in constant flux. There are federal, state and local laws, which give rise to many conflicts and overlaps.

As many states across the nation loosen their laws concerning marijuana, legislators are left trying to write new laws to accommodate new views on this growing issue. Many times, lawmakers are just trying to keep up with the changes in policy, procedure and the perspectives of the populace.

Officials in the counties of Amador, Calaveras and Tuolumne continue to sort out the best approach to medical marijuana in their respective communities, and each county has traveled a different path to regulate both the growing of plants and the dispensaries that distribute the medical marijuana.

The fact that counties and municipalities have been granted so much control over medical marijuana in their jurisdictions largely stems from the state’s ongoing push to give municipalities the ability to customize state law at the local level.

In 2011, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed Senate Bill 847, which would have placed heavy restrictions on the locations of medical marijuana dispensaries throughout the state.

“Decisions of this kind are best made in cities and counties, not the State Capitol,” Brown said at the time.

But laws continue to evolve. Court rulings continue to be made that change the conversation and present challenges for area lawmakers trying to keep up with the elusive laws.

“Because there have been so many changes recently with some state Supreme Court decisions, it’s like this moving target,” said Merita Callaway, Calaveras County supervisor for District 3.

In May, the state’s Supreme Court ruled that cities and counties have the legal authority to ban dispensaries within their jurisdictions and in fact, more than 190 cities and 20 counties have instituted such bans.

“While some counties and cities might consider themselves well suited to accommodating medical marijuana dispensaries, conditions in other communities might lead to the reasonable decision that such facilities within their borders, even if carefully sited, well managed and closely monitored, would present unacceptable local risks and burdens,” wrote Justice Marvin Baxter in the decision.Meanwhile, a judge ruled in 2012 that Riverside County could not close a dispensary that had been opened in an unincorporated area since it left the business no way to stay open based on state law.

The most recent legal ruling came in November from the Third District California Court of Appeal, which ruled a resident suing the city of Live Oak due to its ban on marijuana cultivation had no constitutional right to grow or possess marijuana, despite state laws that legalized both. The ruling is anticipated to be appealed at the state's Supreme Court, but demonstrates the fluctuating legal grounds for counties searching for firm footing as they draw up local laws.

In Calaveras County, county counsel is in the process of drafting a new ordinance to address the recent increase in medical marijuana dispensaries. The county has five operating within its boundaries, but only one has satisfied the conditions of the county’s current ordinance. The others do not meet the zoning requirements.

The new ordinance that’s in the works is likely to land in the laps of county supervisors sometime in the next few months and it will shape the county’s approach for years to come.

All dispensary owners can do is wait, though the county has threatened to close them down in the meantime.

In Amador County, the approach has been varied. County supervisors voted to ban outdoor marijuana gardens in late 2011. By March 2012, they opted to lift the ban and allow outdoor gardens once again.

Many of its laws were formed with federal guidelines in mind, and those guidelines still consider marijuana an illegal substance. Dispensaries are banned in the county, but depositories are legal. And tight regulations limit the location not only by zoning but also by proximity to residential areas.

Tuolumne County is also trying to figure out its own approach amid the fluctuating laws. County supervisors recently took up the issue at their mid-December meeting, when they voted to send a proposed ordinance to the county’s Planning Commission for further review.

In accordance with the ruling by the Third District Court of Appeals, which gave counties the authority to decide how they approached medical marijuana, county staff produced an ordinance that would ban nearly all medical marijuana activities in the county, including dispensaries, outdoor cultivation and medical collectives. It would also put tight restrictions on indoor cultivation.

This is bad news for medical marijuana advocates, who want to see laws based on the science of the plant’s medicinal value, not on the fear and criminal stereotypes many opponents often cite amid their resistance to more permissive laws.

“When it comes to medical marijuana, they continue to deal with this as a criminal issue, not a health issue,” said Tom Liberty, director of Collective Patient Resources in Calaveras County. “(Law enforcement officers) who are supposed to be caring for them and protecting them ... are targeting them as though their health care choice is some kind of criminal problem.”

Liberty lauded Calaveras County for its balanced approach, which includes a board of supervisors that he believes “understands there’s a need in the county for medicine, and they’re not treating it like a ‘problem.’”

As the county drafts its new ordinance, he hopes that the input of dispensary owners, health professionals and patients will be taken into account.

“When counties are trying to develop new policy, they should seek out some patients and professionals,” Liberty said. “The fact is, we should be in on these discussions. We’re completely willing to come in and help.”

​Contact Stephen Crane at


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