SACRAMENTO — After a Rancho Cordova woman complained last year about the skunky smell of pot being grown by a medical marijuana-using neighbor, one City Council member suggested a ban on residential pot cultivation.
That proposal went nowhere. But now Rancho Cordova is asking voters to make the city the first in California to approve a tax on home-grown pot for personal use.
Advocates for medical marijuana and a state initiative to legalize pot for recreational use say the proposed tax is so prohibitive that virtually no one could afford to grow marijuana in the Sacramento County city.
The city's Personal Cannabis Cultivation Tax measure on the Nov. 2 ballot would impose an annual tax of $600 per square foot on indoor marijuana cultivation of up to and including 25 square feet, and a $900-per-square-foot tax for anything larger.
The tax, which makes no distinction between medical and recreational cultivation, would cost a resident $15,000 a year if he or she cultivates pot in a 5-foot-by-5-foot growing space indoors. The measure would allow the city to lower the tax.
The tax proposal is drawing the ire of Don Duncan, California director of Americans for Safe Access, an advocacy group for medical marijuana.
"I think that will have the effect of essentially banning legal cultivation," Duncan said. "I don't know anyone who is prepared to pay $600 a square foot."
Rancho Cordova Mayor Ken Cooley said the city is protecting its interests should California voters approve Proposition 19. The state initiative, also on the Nov. 2 ballot, would legalize recreational marijuana use for adults over 21, allow small residential cultivation and permit cities to tax retail pot sales.
Cooley said the measure – which would impose a lower tax on outdoor growing – was a response to concerns "about problems caused in neighborhoods by growing marijuana."
"It just raised the issue for us that, as we comply with state law, we keep on top of quality of life issues," the mayor said.
Neighborhood services manager Kerry Simpson said code enforcement officers have uncovered a few cases of altered circuit boxes and fire hazards from dangerous wiring for residential pot cultivation.
Simpson said the city recently responded to residents complaining about mold in a rental unit.
"Lo and behold, they were causing it themselves because they had a (marijuana) grow in the bedroom," she said.
Dale Gieringer, the California director for National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws, said he opposes any tax on medical pot growers but could envision a permit and modest fees for recreational cultivation.
Nevertheless, Gieringer said, the Rancho Cordova cultivation tax is likely an "unconstitutional" and "punitive" measure to keep people from growing pot.
"At that level, the city would collect no money," Gieringer said. "Nobody would pay that tax. It's a punitive tax. And I think it would be thrown out by the courts."
Separate from its ballot measure, Rancho Cordova passed an ordinance declaring outdoor pot cultivation exceeding 25 square feet an unlawful "public nuisance." The ordinance also requires special permits for any indoor grows above 25 square feet.
Rancho Cordova currently bans medical marijuana dispensaries. It has placed a second measure on the November ballot to impose a gross receipts tax of 12 percent to 15 percent on pot sales if any pot stores are allowed to open in the city in the future.
In nearby Sacramento, voters will consider a local measure to levy a gross receipts tax of 2 percent to 4 percent on some 39 existing medical pot dispensaries and impose a tax of 5 percent to 10 percent on new retail pot outlets if Proposition 19 passes.
Cooley said Rancho Cordova has no interest in allowing dispensaries but wanted a pot business tax in place should the courts force the city to accept the establishments.
Council member Dan Skoglund, who cast the only dissenting vote on pot business and cultivation taxes, said the ballot measures falsely suggest the city supports Proposition 19 or marijuana use.
"My vision of an all-American city is not to have a dispensary storefront," Skoglund said. He added: "How are you going to sell your house when you're overlooking the neighbor's (pot) garden?"
Although other cities have targeted marijuana businesses and commercial cultivators for taxes, Rancho Cordova is the first to look at people who may grow pot for themselves.
That infuriates Dr. Phillip Denney, a Carmichael physician who works with medical-marijuana patients, including several from the city.
"I see this as a very thinly veiled threat to the hard-won right of people to use cannabis as medicine," Denney said.
But Rancho Cordova spokeswoman Nancy Pearl said the cultivation tax seeks to pay for city code enforcement and protection against "general threats to the neighborhood" from potential crime, traffic, stench or other nuisances.
"Our building and safety people and police and fire will have to work more to protect the community," Pearl said. "And there are costs associated with that."
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