Fresno County supervisors OK $73,000 in fines for pot growers

The Fresno BeeMarch 25, 2014 

Marijuana plant.

FRESNO BEE FILE PHOTO

Fresno County supervisors fined two people $73,000 for growing marijuana at their homes under the county's new marijuana cultivation ban.

The ban, which took effect in February, will result in fines of $1,000 per plant found on property or inside homes.

A man from the Kerman area, Bret Harmon, was fined $30,000 for having 30 marijuana plants in his garage. He did not show up for Tuesday's hearing.

A woman was fined $43,000 -- $1,000 for each of the 43 plants found at her mother's home west of Sanger. Her mother also can be on the hook for the fines through a property lien.

Phaeth Holapatiphone, 33, of Manteca, was cultivating marijuana in her mother's backyard to treat her depression. She said she was on antidepressants, but marijuana helped her feel better. She said she grew marijuana because her mother didn't want her going out on the streets to buy it.

Sheriff's deputies "didn't give me fair warning," she told supervisors. "They talked to my brother one day and came back the next day to remove the plants."

Holapatiphone said she was threatened with jail if the plants were not pulled.

"If they gave me enough time to pull up my plants and not get caught with them I would have done that," she told supervisors.

Supervisors passed the cultivation ban because of 20 violent incidents related to marijuana cultivation last year, including murder, assaults and home-invasion robberies.

Sheriff Margaret Mims said the ordinance was a message to growers.

"The board tried with its first ordinance to address the issue because people still continued illegal activity," she said. "As the problems progressed and public safety issues progressed, they had to take a stronger stand (with the ban) and they did."

Despite voting to impose the fines, Supervisor Henry R. Perea said there must be a way to get medical marijuana to people who need it.

"I don't dismiss the few folks who say medical marijuana has been a positive influence in their lives. I do believe it," he said. "We all know there are a lot of folks who scammed and played the game and killed the golden goose, but it doesn't mean we don't still have a responsibility to provide the medicine to people who need it."

Fresno lawyer Brenda Linder said she will seek a temporary restraining order to stop the county from continuing to go after small-time growers like Holapatiphone.

The county is charging "exorbitant, excessive fines," she said.

"In this case there were 43 plants for one person and that is not what the sheriff and the board advertised they were going after and wasn't the criminal enterprise they kept touting to the news media," Linder said.

Linder said she has 30 days to go to court to contest the ordinance.

At the end of Tuesday's actions, supervisors said they would conduct marijuana hearings in the future only if a person appeals their fine to the board.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6166, mbenjamin@fresnobee.com or @beebenjamin on Twitter.

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