Marek Warszawski

Can you grow pot legally in Fresno? Only if it’s indoors and out of sight

Is growing marijuana in Fresno legal or not?

Recent newcomer plants six marijuana plants in his backyard believing state laws allow him to do that, but Fresno and other cities have adopted ordinances that prohibit outdoor growing.
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Recent newcomer plants six marijuana plants in his backyard believing state laws allow him to do that, but Fresno and other cities have adopted ordinances that prohibit outdoor growing.

He moved to town in April intending to grow marijuana outdoors. With its abundant sunshine, Fresno seemed like the perfect location.

“Growing it in the ground is free — the sun is free,” Ron says while he and I sit in the living room of his central Fresno home.

“But then I started to face a lot of ambiguity in what the laws are down here. I know I can grow indoors. That’s clear. But I want to use the sun. I want to have marijuana that I don’t have to pay for. But what risk am I running?”

By growing six marijuana plants in his backyard, Ron is running some risk. (Which is why I’ve chosen not to include his last name.) Technically he’s in violation of the Fresno Municipal Code, Article 21 Section 12-2104, which prohibits all marijuana cultivation within the city limits.

How can this be, some of you may be asking. Didn’t Proposition 64, which California voters passed in November 2016 by a 57.1 percent margin, legalize marijuana statewide?

The answer is “yes” but sometimes “no.” Prop. 64 made it legal for adults 21 and over to possess and use marijuana for recreational purposes. It also permits adults to cultivate up to six marijuana plants inside a private residence or accessory structure “that is fully enclosed and secure.”

While state law supersedes local ordinances, in this case it applies only to indoor marijuana. Individual cities and counties have the right under Prop. 64 to forbid outdoor growing and cultivation — which Fresno has done.

So, technically, the six marijuana plants currently flowering in Ron’s backyard, out in the open, under the ever-present Fresno sun, are a city code violation. He could be fined $1,000 per plant.

“I think a lot of people are misinformed about what Prop. 64 does and doesn’t do,” Fresno attorney Brenda Linder said. “Prop. 64 is not a free for all.”

In recent months I’ve been critical of Fresno’s Dark Ages, Refer Madness mindset when it comes to marijuana. Twenty-two years after California voters passed the medical marijuana initiative, Fresno is finally getting around to it.

But in this instance, California’s fifth-largest city is hardly alone. San Jose, San Diego, Sacramento, Modesto, San Luis Obispo, Clovis, Visalia, Tulare, Merced all prohibit outdoor growing, as do a host of other cities and municipalities including Fresno County. Cities that allow outdoor grows, according to a database compiled by thecannifornian.com, include Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, Long Beach, Anaheim and Bakersfield.

Believe it or not, some Central California cities have rules more restrictive than Fresno. In Madera, Reedley, Los Banos, Chowchilla, Corcoran and Paso Robles, even six-plant indoor grows require a permit.

Talk about Big Brother watching over you.

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Ron (last name withheld to protect him from legal repercussions) looks over his six cannabis plants in the backyard of his central Fresno home on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2018. After moving here from Santa Cruz in April, Ron is unsure about the local laws governing outdoor marijuana cultivation for personal use. CRAIG KOHLRUSS ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

Adding to his anxiety, Ron feels like he’s being watched over by Fresno Police Department helicopters that do constant aerial surveillance of his neighborhood. Although the 61-year-old doesn’t believe the choppers are specifically targeting him or his plants, they still raise his pulse.

“I’m anxious at the sound of the blades the moment I hear them,” Ron says. “I get in this manic state of mind. … I may just be paranoid. I don’t know. But in Santa Cruz I did not have helicopters flying over my neighborhood everyday, many times a day. Here it’s commonplace.”

Ron’s decision to grow outdoors, in the relative privacy of his backyard, boils down to money.

Marijuana isn’t cheap. If Ron was to rely solely on dispensaries for his pot, he says it would cost him about $50 per week. If he grew indoors, as legally allowed, he would need to spend hundreds of dollars on grow lights and hydroponic equipment and supplies. Not to mention what PG&E would charge him on his electricity bill.

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These marijuana plants growing in the backyard of a central Fresno home are technically in violation of Article 21 Section 12-2104 of the Fresno Municipal Code, which prohibits all marijuana cultivation. However, Proposition 64 preempts the city from enforcing this statute for up to six plants grown indoors per residence. CRAIG KOHLRUSS ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

“The sun is free. I can grow my corn under the sun,” Ron says. “Do the farmers who grow wheat and corn have to go inside and grow their crops under lights? Are they forced to pay a higher energy bill every month? Or are the people of Fresno going to turn to stone if they see or smell a marijuana plant?”

Those are good, provocative questions, and law-enforcement officials typically use the potential for crime as a reason why growing marijuana outdoors is prohibited.

Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer pointed to an incident from last Saturday, just before noon, when officers were dispatched to a shooting after two men went into the backyard of a downtown resident and attempted to steal his plants. Armed with a machete, the homeowner ran toward one of the suspects, who pulled out a handgun and fired one round at the homeowner before fleeing.

“This happens frequently in our city,” Dyer said in an email. “Sometimes it is reported to us, and sometimes it is not.”

Ron’s plants are nearly ready for harvest. They stand about 3 tall and cannot be seen (or smelled) from the street. Unless a neighbor peers over the fence, no one would know they’re there. He doesn’t tell anyone he’s growing, except family.

“I want to be respectful, I want to be a good neighbor, but I also want to enjoy the freedom and liberty the new law allows me,” Ron says. “We’ve got to find a happy medium there.”

Indeed, we do.

Marek Warszawski: 559-441-6218, @MarekTheBee

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