On a chilly Monday morning, Forest Cross walked out of his front door clutching a small black Yorkshire-poodle mix in his arms.
“This is Java,” he said with a sardonic smirk. “This is our pit bull.”
Thrust into the center of a medical marijuana debate in San Luis Obispo, Forest and his mother, Erin, seem taken aback at the accusations that have been leveled against them. In fact, correspondence included in a city staff report claims the Crosses are responsible for “broken bottles in the street, pit bulls barking and fighting in the backyard, sleazy people constantly coming and going, and the threat of crime in our neighborhood due to the presence of drugs and the people growing and using them.”
The pit bull, Forest said, was a 3-month-old puppy the family was babysitting for friends. They’re not sure about the broken bottles or criminal element—Erin, for example, teaches music to children—and their best guess about people coming and going was when they asked friends to help them take down a dozen marijuana plants after receiving complaints from neighbors. Yet their situation remained at the center of a much larger debate.
On May 6, people packed into the SLO City Council Chambers, spilling out into the hallways and even filling a side room to watch a live feed of the meeting. A vast majority had come to protest a proposed city ordinance they claimed would limit their access, push them back into the black market, and introduce fire hazards into their home by moving gardens indoors.
City councilmembers eventually voted 4-1 to table their discussion about the ordinance and go back to the community to discuss alternative ways of regulating medical marijuana in the city. (Councilman Dan Carpenter said he was in favor of the proposal, noting marijuana is a controlled substance under federal law.)
“The only way I’d vote for this ordinance right now is if I had had too many hits on a bong,” Councilman John Ashbaugh said.
It was an unsurprising turn of events, as many people questioned the need for a stringent sweep of new rules.
City staffers had proposed to ban outdoor marijuana cultivation and processing, limit indoor activities, and add city codes that would explicitly prohibit medical marijuana delivery services.
Citing the Cross’ plants—as well as the potential criminal activity, a grand jury report, and recent case law—city staffers proposed to ban all outdoor growing operations and limit cultivation and processing to 50 square feet indoors or in an allowed accessory building. Additionally, city staffers recommended creating specific language to eliminate delivery services, with the exception of deliveries to no more than two people—a rule they argue is already in place because the code doesn’t allow for such uses.
“It’s not a prohibition, which many jurisdictions have done and which the courts have said that the city could do,” said SLO Community Development Director Derek Johnson.
But the proposed ordinance drew immediate negative reaction from medical marijuana advocates, who’ve seen dispensaries pinched out of every corner of SLO County, and heavy law enforcement scrutiny of delivery services.
“A lot of times, I think people are looking for any excuse to ban this type of activity because they fear it,” said Don Duncan, California director for the group Americans for Safe Access.
Residents near the Cross’ home said they’re in favor of medical marijuana for its intended purpose, but they draw the line with people who they believe are abusing existing laws.
“It’s not about us trying to prohibit the cancer patient from getting their marijuana,” said Brett Bargenquast, whose email to city officials was included in the ordinance’s staff report. “But this is the reality of people abusing the act, and it needs to be restrained.”
In the proposed ordinance, city staffers pointed directly to the Cross’ growing operation, and pointed to additional incidents when people were held hostage and/or robbed for their marijuana, though the incidents weren’t identified specifically as involving medical marijuana. Capt. Chris Staley of the SLO Police Department said the issue with the Cross’ grow “made us realize that there’s definitely a potential for problems.”
“We’re just looking out for the citizens who may not necessarily want to have the neighbor’s whole backyard be a marijuana grow just because they have the ability to do so,” Staley added.
However, after neighbors began publicly complaining to city officials, the Cross family removed the 12 plants from their backyard. And over the past seven months since their grow first became an issue of contention, they haven’t heard from the police, or anyone from the city. Yet city officials pointed to their situation as the impetus for more restrictive medical marijuana regulations. For example, the ordinance included a whereas that said Forest “allegedly slept with a shotgun for protection.” Asked whether the family owns a gun, Erin said, “Absolutely not.”
“It was painted as a picture that this was a drug house,” Forest said.
Both Forest and Erin—as well as people who spoke before the City Council—said they’re in favor of regulating outdoor growing operations. When the Crosses first started growing, they just didn’t know it might cause a problem.
“We were not asking for all this attention,” Erin said. “And I felt scared about the attention that it was bringing on my home.”
Senior Staff Writer Colin Rigley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.