Oakland's Pot Plantations Crowd Home Growers

The city of Oakland, Calif., was the birthplace of last year's failed effort to legalize marijuana statewide. The city is pushing the limits again — this time by clearing the way for enormous pot farms inside the city.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Oakland, California is at the center of the debate over medical marijuana again. The city was the birthplace of last year's failed attempt to legalize pot for recreational use in this state. Now Oakland is pushing the limits, this time by clearing the way for enormous pot farms inside the city. As NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, the federal government and even some marijuana activists are saying not so fast.

RICHARD GONZALES: The backbone of Oakland's medical marijuana industry can be found in bedroom closets or backyard garages like this one.

(Soundbite of opening door)

Tyyren Buxton, who grows cannabis for a local medical marijuana dispensary, unlocks a door to a small dark room revealing more than fifty young plants and a noisy dehumidifier.

Mr. TYYREN BUXTON: This is a room full of medical cannabis. Most of the room is Strawberry Cough. We also have a little bit of a strain called God's Gift right here in front. Each strain is good for different ailments. Some of them good for nausea, some of them are good for anti-anxiety. Some of them are good for pain relief.

GONZALES: Small, home-based gardens like this one generate much of the marijuana for medical dispensaries. But they have a lot to lose under a new Oakland law.

Last July, the Oakland City Council approved an ordinance to license four indoor marijuana plantations with no limit on how large they could be. Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan co-authored that proposal. At a recent city hall hearing, she said those authorized growing operations would offset the shady side of medical marijuana in Oakland.

Councilwoman REBECCA KAPLAN (Democrat, Oakland, California): Currently growing is taking place illicitly in national parks, illicitly in facilities with bad wiring that catch fire. The purpose of having a permitting system is to have more control and have it be more safe.

GONZALES: Left unsaid is the fact that big cannabis farms are potential cash cows for the city of Oakland. But there is a risk. Both the local district attorney and the U.S. Attorney say those pot farms would violate state and federal law.

William Panzer, an attorney who specializes in marijuana defense, co-authored Proposition 215, the initiative that legalized medical marijuana.

Mr. WILLIAM PANZER (Attorney): Clearly it's illegal under federal law. And there's nothing in state law that would allow for the first idea of let's just license giant commercial grows to sell to people or sell to clubs.

Unidentified Woman: Good evening. Thank you for calling Harborside Health Center.

GONZALES: The Harborside Health Center is one of Oakland's four medical marijuana dispensaries. Its executive director, Steve DeAngelo, says he's all for buying cannabis from legal sources, but he worries that large, city-licensed marijuana farms will put small growers out of business.

Mr. STEVE DEANGELO (Executive director, Harborside Health Center): I don't think that this was a request that came out of the patient community. And I still don't really understand why the council chose to move in such a dramatic direction all at once.

GONZALES: The Oakland city council is trying to duck a legal battle by amending its original ordinance. It's reduced the maximum size of the pot farms to 50,000 square feet. And it's requiring that the farms be linked to a dispensary, so the marijuana doesn't wind up on the illegal market.

Oakland Councilwoman Desley Brooks told her council colleagues the city shouldn't give up on the idea of big, centralized growing operations.

Councilwoman DESLEY BROOKS (Oakland, California): If you believe that people who are sick have a right to cannabis, then would it not be better to have an environment where we know exactly where it comes from? That's what we're seeking to provide here in moving this ordinance forward.

GONZALES: Yet even under its new plan, Oakland is proposing to grow far more marijuana than its dispensaries currently sell. And there's no indication that state and federal law enforcement have changed their objections.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.

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