BAKERSFIELD, Calif. » Kern County is not exactly the kind of place where you would expect a voter rebellion, what with its conservative rural residents, its live-off-the-land values and its almost unshakable devotion to the Republican Party.
But over the last several months, Kern County — about 100 miles north of Los Angeles in the Central Valley and as far as it can get from San Francisco — has become the scene of a civil war of sorts over an issue, medical marijuana, whose supporters are often of a more liberal stripe. At stake is a controversial new law — passed unanimously in August by the county’s all-Republican Board of Supervisors — which would have effectively shut many of the three dozen or so medical marijuana dispensaries in the county.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the ban: A group of medical marijuana advocates started a petition drive to challenge it, calling for a referendum on the law, something that could happen as soon as next year. In the meantime, the law is on hold.
And while such an effort is nearly unheard of in Kern — perhaps the first time in modern memory that anyone can recall a board-passed law being so challenged — it is not the only place in California, the original medical marijuana state, where local regulation is meeting opposition. Laws passed in several other counties and cities have also been the subject of referendum movements, something permitted by California state law.
In San Jose, for example, advocates for medical marijuana filed tens of thousands of signatures on Friday to try to force a vote on a new law that would have regulated dispensaries there, a development that Mayor Chuck Reed said could cost his cash-strapped city — facing a $100 million deficit next year — sorely needed finances to mount an election.
"It’s definitely not a small number," Reed said. "But that’s the choice we’ll have to make."
At the same time, some state officials in California are also increasingly perplexed about mixed signs from the federal authorities, who still view marijuana as illegal under federal law despite legislation in more than a dozen states allowing the drug’s medical use. The strongest indication of recent federal disapproval came in early October, when four U.S. attorneys in California said they would crack down on dozens of dispensaries — which sell marijuana to anyone with a doctor’s recommendation — saying that many are operating as large-scale drug-selling operations, not medically minded collectives, as required by state law.
And while state officials here admit that the current model of distribution is subject to manipulation by those simply wanting to buy marijuana for recreational use, they argue that the federal threats are endangering those who truly need it.
"If there are abuses we should deal with those, but this is not the way to do it," said Tom Ammiano, a state assemblyman from San Francisco, who called the federal threats thuggish. "I expect any day now for a droid to come down on some poor dispensary in Fresno or something and obliterate the people."
The two men at the heart of the battle over the Kern County ordinance have similar backgrounds — both with years of law enforcement experience — but with very different attitudes about California’s landmark medical marijuana law, Proposition 215, which was passed by voters in 1996. On one side is Sheriff Donny Youngblood, a former Army drill sergeant, who has made it very clear that he thinks the way Proposition 215 is being used now is a "sham" that flies in the face of not only federal statutes, but also of common decency.
"It’s not just a legal stand," Youngblood said. "It’s really a moral stand."
On the other extreme is Robert Wade, a narcotics officer turned entrepreneur, who says being laid off led him to open a medical marijuana dispensary and clinic last year, an operation that now brings him a six-figure salary in what he calls "one of the few growing industries in this country."
"Five years ago, I was living the American dream," said Wade. "Now, I’m living the American dream, just in a different avenue."
Wade is just one of several dispensary owners and supporters who helped finance a movement to collect the 17,000 signatures — sometimes at booths in front of Walmart — needed to put the new law to a vote. Those petitions were turned in in early September, temporarily suspending the law’s implementation. The county board is now considering its next step, but a referendum could come as soon as next spring.
And while the biggest block of Kern’s 310,000 registered voters are Republicans, national drug reformers say the vote here could be an indication of what they feel is increasing bipartisan support for medical marijuana.
"For Kern, as a red county, to step up and say, ‘Wait a minute,’ I think that would really resonate," said Ethan Nadelmann, the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which lobbies for more liberal drug laws.
That said, it will not necessarily be an easy sell. Kern County’s right-leaning tendencies are well-documented and deeply felt, including its pride over Rep. Kevin McCarthy, a fourth-generation county resident who serves as the House majority whip. Even more tellingly, Kern County voters soundly rejected a 2010 measure to legalize recreational use of marijuana, with 65 percent of the vote.
Still, local supporters say that they are confident that Kern residents are more independently minded than some outsiders expect. "The people here, they’re pretty tough," said Gary Fly, a former big rig driver who now runs two dispensaries in Kern County. "They’re not the pushover type of people. If they want to fight for their rights, they will."
But Youngblood says that the marijuana has been a destructive force in his county, destroying public lands — where growers often plant — and bringing into an otherwise largely peaceful rural environment an influx of weapons as a result of what he says are criminal cartels involved in the drug trade. He has conducted several major raids this year, including one in September that netted more than 2,100 plants near the town of Wasco.
He rejects the notion that somehow sick people are being denied succor. "This marijuana issue is about money," he said, "not about medicine."
Wade says that he has, in fact, invested tens of thousands of dollars in his business, a pair of handsomely appointed storefronts just north of Bakersfield in Oildale, where several other marijuana-related dispensaries and horticulture shops have helped add some street-level commerce to an otherwise humdrum strip of suburbia. Last week, Halloween decorations adorned Wade’s consultation center, as customers compared samples of marijuana mounted on a magnetized board in the dispensary next door.
Wade — who uses marijuana to treat his own anxiety — said he has been fielding a steady stream of questions from worried patients about whether the local law will stand or the federal crackdown will shut him down. He worries, too, he said, not only for his business but for the nearly dozen workers he has hired in a county with double-digit unemployment.
"There’s people here who weren’t working before who are working now and are living in apartments and buying cars," he said. "Now they have hope for the future."