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Town Of Clearlake Takes Center Stage In Emotional Battle Over Medical Marijuana Cultivation Ban

CLEARLAKE (KPIX 5) -- The town of Clearlake in Lake County is now center stage in an emotional legal battle over medical marijuana, and patients say a complete ban on all cultivation is putting lives at risk, and are filing a suit to stop it.

It's a spoonful of medicine that Jeri Spittler believes kept her husband Tony alive through his fight with cancer. "He has no sense of smell, no sense of taste. So the cannabis helps remind him it's time to eat," said Jeri.

She feeds him smoothies with oil from marijuana plants they have grown in their garden for years. But they won't be able to anymore after the city council just made it illegal to grow marijuana. "The whole thing does not make sense," she said.

They live in Clearlake, about three hours north of San Francisco. Clearlake is one of a growing number of local governments across the state that have begun to outlaw the growing of marijuana.

Nearly 20 years ago, California voters said marijuana is medicine, and you won't be prosecuted for having it if you have a doctor's note. But an appeals court ruled last year that you don't have a "right" to grow it.

That gave cities and counties legal precedent to ban cultivation. So far three counties, Fresno, Shasta and Tehama, and three cities, Live Oak, Fresno and Clearlake, have cultivation bans.

"There's been a huge influx of the illicit grows here," said Clearlake's police chief Craig Clausen. Instead of six plants, Clausen says people were growing hundreds. And with those large pot grows came an increase in crime.

"In the last six months, we've had two home invasion robberies, one in which a small child was held at gunpoint because they were trying to steal the marijuana and/or money," he said.

When we brought up the fact that there are people who depend on the plants for medicine, the chief agreed. But he says: "We are not saying you can't use it.  If you partake in distilled spirits, doesn't mean you can have a distillery in your garage. This is the same thing."

But attorney Joe Elford disagrees. "It is  the most extreme ordinance that I have ever seen," he said. Elford says the language of the ordinance could even be construed to mean no possession either. He is filing a lawsuit on behalf of the Spittlers and others. "No one should want to see people, especially people who have serious illnesses, suffer. To prevent them from being able to cultivate marijuana that they need and that they can't afford at a dispensary is just plain cruel."

He says cultivation bans are spreading like wildfire across Northern California. "We are trying to stop this in its tracks before this horrible trend continues," he said.

The Spittlers hope their lawsuit will make the city back off and just give the current ordinance more teeth without telling sick people they can't grow plants. "The ordinance allowed for 6 plants. We have never gone outside that," said Jeri Spittler. "This is purely for my husband's health. Because of the illegal grows I don't personally believe that it's fair to punish everyone in the community that followed the ordinance."

The new no-grow ordinance is set to go into effect at the end of the month. But already residents are passing out petitions calling for a referendum. If they gather enough signatures the ordinance could be put on hold.

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