April 11, 2012 -- The sun has now warmed the rich soil of California's Central Valley. It's time to plant. But for one of the valley's most profitable crops, this year's forecast is decidedly chilly.
Starting this weekend, growers of medicinal marijuana who have the bad luck to be in the state's Madera County will have to move their entire crops into their bedrooms, or at least a bedroom-sized greenhouse.
The new county rule says plants must be in an enclosed space no larger than 10 feet by 12 feet. That's enough room for about a dozen plants, says Madera County Sheriff John Anderson, more than enough space for anyone legally growing marijuana for their own medical use.
"What we're hoping is it will prohibit the huge crops they've been planting out there for commercial and criminal use," he says. "You don't need several thousand plants to control pain."
When California legalized marijuana for medical use in 1996, Johnson says it was an invitation for drug cartels to move in. Before 1996, he says, illegal growers were forced to hide their crops high in the mountains.
"They've since discovered, 'why go up into the mountains when we can grow legally here in the valley?'" he says. "They've just moved into the farmlands and started growing large crops."
Medical Marijuana Debate Pits States Against Feds
Last year Johnson says there were 80 marijuana crops in his county with between 100 and 5,000 plants. This year, all of those crops will be illegal.
Even supporters of legal marijuana for medical use acknowledge the problem sheriffs like John Anderson are facing.
California State Sen. Mark Leno is a major voice in support of legal medical marijuana. He says Anderson has found "a creative solution" to an underlying problem. That problem is that California and 15 other states now say one thing when it comes to medical marijuana, while the federal government says another.
Those 16 states have passed laws allowing patients with a doctor's recommendation to grow and use marijuana, but those people are still breaking federal law. So law enforcement is caught in a trap.
"Until that discord is resolved we will continue to struggle," says Leno.
Anderson's solution is to follow state law when it comes to growers with just a few marijuana plants, but to call the feds when he finds a major growing operation.
"Anyone we catch we recommend for federal prosecution because they can't use Prop 215 [which legalized medical marijuana]," he says. "And the feds don't have parole, so people will serve 85 to 90 percent of their sentence."
But far from an ally, Leno sees in the federal government the root of the problem.
The Obama administration came into office pledging not to prosecute medical marijuana cases. But this month federal agents raided the infamous Oaksterdam University in Oakland, Calif., across the bay from Leno's San Francisco district. It's an election year, and Leno smells politics.
"They've done a complete about-face and it's very disappointing," he says. "We've got a raging meth problem not just in California but across this country. There are some very dangerous drugs out there destroying lives and communities, but the Justice Department's singular focus seems to be on medical marijuana."
Oaksterdam Raided By Feds
Oaksterdam is both a dispensary for medical marijuana and a school for cannabis entrepreneurs, offering classes on every aspect of this burgeoning industry. Even the name (combining Oakland and Amsterdam, where marijuana is legal) is a wink to its underlying agenda.
Advocates on both sides of the issue acknowledge that the medical use of marijuana is sometimes a cover for recreational use. Patients do not need a prescription for marijuana, only a "recommendation" and a quick search on the internet will turn up dozens physicians selling those recommendations to treat a wide range of symptoms.
Last Monday, agents from the Drug Enforcement Agency raided both the school and the apartment of its founder, 49-year-old Richard Lee, suggesting the feds may be planning to bring a case against Lee on federal tax charges.
But while marijuana growers and police in 16 states must navigate a strange world where federal and state laws contradict each other, the marijuana growers in one California county now have a clear understanding of what's allowed: you can grow marijuana in your bedroom, but not your back yard.