by Mark Scaramella, September 1, 2011
Most of the items on the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors agenda last week were mundane — garbage contract details, redistricting, redevelopment, a couple of routine rezones to rubberstamp, and so on.
But there was one subject that, by coincidence, is a hot topic in Anderson Valley these days: Medical Marijuana Dispensary Regulation.
County Counsel Jeanine Nadel introduced the subject: “Back in late July the Board created an ad hoc committee consisting of Supervisors [John] McCowen and [Dan] Hamburg to work on a dispensary ordinance to be brought to the full board for consideration. Since that time Supervisor Hamburg has recused himself from the committee work as he explained in last week's board meeting in Fort Bragg.”
Supervisor Hamburg’s daughter has applied for a business license to open a pot dispensary in Boonville. All that's required is a business license to sell marijuana disguised as medicinal.
Many, if not most residents of Anderson Valley, including committed pot smokers, are opposed to the Boonville dispensary.
Ms. Nadel continued, “So we are back with a choice here. We can appoint another member of the board of supervisors to the ad hoc committee or we can disband the ad hoc committee altogether and allow any Supervisor who so chooses to bring an ordinance before the board for their consideration. So it's really up to the board as to how you want to proceed at this point.”
Ms. Nadel avoided mention of at least two other choices the Board has: impose a moratorium on new dispensaries until rules are in place and turn the rule-drafting process over to the Planning Commission, as several other counties have done.
No members of the Board caring to comment, the discussion of dispensary regulation was opened to the floor.
Matthew Cohen: “I represent a trade organization called Mendo Grown. We just want to lend our support to… We can introduce a dispensary ordinance through any one of you folks. It would probably be you, John [McCowen], or we could also support another supervisor to come on to the ad hoc committee and if we had our preference we’d go with Kendall. We have dealt with her before on 9.31 [the pot cultivation rules] but I don't know if you're up for it again, for round two.”
Supervisor John Pinches: “If you really believe in Prop 215, the state law by the voters of the state of California that legalized medical marijuana, then if it's totally legal in the eyes of the people of California, then I'm not so sure, you know, do we have a special ordinance for every store that sells Bayer aspirin? Or do we have a special ordinance for every store that sells Jack Daniels whiskey? No. It's already identified that we have at least 10 or 12 marijuana dispensaries already operating in Mendocino County with no ordinance so that kind of begs the question; the complaints we have, there haven't exactly been, at least to me, a lot of them, so I'm not so sure, like the old saying, if it's not broken why do you have to fix it? They have to because of retail business, they have to be in a commercial district. You might look at part of the business district like an alcoholic beverage control license where they can't be within so many feet from a school or things like that, but I'm not so sure that it really takes adoption of a special ordinance because medical marijuana in the eyes of California voters is legal so I'm not so sure why you have to set it aside; if you look what other counties are doing it's all over the map. We've already got close to a dozen of them operating right today in this county, so why does it take a special ordinance for that. Like I say, it's a retail business; they have to be in commercial zoning so the properties and locations are already set aside…”
Mike Johnson came to the microphone: “My wife and I run the Compassionate Heart dispensary on Industry Road here north of town and I know that in '08 you guys decided this was a problem that didn't need fixing. And today I find myself in the most unusual position of my life. It occurs to me that if you guys wrote an ordinance more or less favorable to the dispensaries and limited the numbers of dispensaries that could be allowed in the county it could be a boon to me and my business. But I don't really think it's good government to write ordinances for 10 businesses in the county. Everything that's been said in the paper and publicly about this is there is no problem in current… the way things are right now. Again, I’d kinda like to have a business license that says I’m licensed by Mendocino County to sell cannabis. But I'm not sure it's wise for you folks to give me that license as a taxpayer of this county. I've got some concerns about 9.31 that I would like to talk to John and I think I need to talk with Sheriff Allman about but I’ll share part of the concern with you. That is when you license people to do something that is not legal federally you incur some liability. Now again, this could be favorable to me and my business and my income, but as a citizen of this county I have some serious concerns about the cost to the taxpayers of litigation etc. that may come with it. So I just want to say that the idea ‘if it isn't broke don't fix it’ is pretty strong in my mind. But if you go ahead with this we all, all of us dispensary people, want to help do it and be part of it. Thank you.”
Pinches agreed: “It's kind of ironic that if we had brought this up for discussion as recently as probably three years ago this boardroom would be packed. And now it's kinda like Who really gives a damn?”
Ms. Nadel repeated the limited options, again without mentioning a moratorium (as the Grand Jury recommended), or referral to the Planning Commission for guidelines: “So your options are to disband the committee or to appoint another board member to the committee and then we can move on.”
Kendall Smith was inspired by comments in favor of elementary regulation from Supervisor Brown to launch a string of the non sequiters characteristic of Smith's public comments. “I think Supervisor Brown those are very good points and I think that this was addressed in some detail in the grand jury report. But I think you bring up some very good points that you know taking a look at something and trying to put some parameters around and have some expectations of it especially when it is something of a controversial nature at times depending on a number of factors for certain people it definitely becomes controversial. I have received a couple of emails expressing a couple of concerns. It probably does make sense to at least review an ordinance. I agree with you. So I think that's a very good preamble to you being on the committee with Supervisor McCowen. Because I think that… Supervisor Pinches thinks he should be last in line, but he and I can fight that one out. So I think it would really make sense to have you [Brown] on the committee and it would definitely bring some very good perspectives to it and that's what I would propose especially if someone would pick up that as a motion.”
Supervisor McCowen: “I agree with your comment except your conclusion. And I do think that based on your past history with the 9.31 committee hearings which I think we ultimately developed a pretty good product, I think, and again I do think Supervisor Hamburg would be the ideal choice, but as we know, for various reasons, that's not going to happen. I think you are best suited to provide an appropriate balance as well as the contribution of your knowledge and experience, therefore I will move that the board of appoint Kendall Smith to the medical marijuana dispensary ad hoc committee with meetings to be not officially noticed but to be advertised to the public and meetings to rotate between inland and the coast.”
Smith, of course, couldn’t just say no thanks: “Here's how the structure of the board has been, and this is historic, and this is the first year that we have not had the standing committees which meet regularly on Mondays, some of them were very rigorous at times, the one on marijuana was probably one of the most, and that committee structure has basically been put on hold this year for any number of reasons that we talked about before and that, those committees are something that The Chair does not participate in because The Chair has other responsibilities and additional meeting to go to every week based on the agenda setting and the agenda planning so really based on that I, I am going to have to, you know, very respectfully, you know, take myself out of the running for that, I have a number of different state and federal committees I'm also on that I have been on for long-standing. I really just have to pass at this point. But I think Supervisor Brown would do an excellent job and I think someone ought to change that motion.”
McCowen: “Madam chair, I do not find your reasons for why you cannot do it credible and yet involuntary servitude has been outlawed by amendment to the Constitution so I withdraw my motion.”
Brown: “I withdraw my second.”
Smith: “So let's see a motion for Supervisor Brown, please, someone.”
Pinches: “I won't support any motion that don't support the person that wants to be on that because the speaker reminded us all that marijuana, the word marijuana, the use of, any type of use or sale of marijuana is still federally illegal and the federal government is going to view any person that partakes in that as they, you know, you could potentially be charged in a federal case so I take that very seriously, even participation in that. We all support I think legalization of marijuana at the federal law but the fact of the matter is we are not there yet and it's still illegal federal activity, so to participate in this should be on a voluntary basis. I don’t think anybody should be forced into it by a form of a motion.
Smith: “I agree. And I also think that Supervisor McCowen is more than qualified to bring it forward as an individual supervisor and I wouldn't see it any differently if it came from him or it came from two members of the Board. I think that's another viable option.”
Brown: “I'm going to make a motion to appoint Supervisor McCowen to the one-person committee and go over this and bring something forward. Oh! First we have to disband. So the motion is to disband the formally appointed ad hoc committee.”
Smith: “Do I hear a second?”
Hamburg: “Does that mean that you do not wish to be involved in this committee?”
Smith: “So we have no volunteer.”
Pinches: “Once we disband the committee any supervisor at that point can bring forward a proposal.”
Hamburg: “Whatever he wants.”
Smith: “Okay supervisor Brown, your motion is to disband the marijuana dispensary ad hoc committee on the agenda today.”
Brown: “Correct, as a result of our last meeting’s discussion.”
Smith: “All in favor?”
Hamburg: “I'm going to abstain.”
Smith: “Okay. We, so no one is opposed and one abstension. So it passes 4-1 with Supervisor Hamburg abstaining.”
Pinches: “So now, John, on this issue you can just argue with yourself.”
McCowen: “I’m more than capable.”
Supervisor Brown: “I do think it's important that we have something come forward, so I hope you waste no time in having meetings Supervisor McCowen, and I hope there is a product that comes forth soon.”
Pinches: “As long as the product is better than what we have now, which is nothing.”
Hamburg: “First do no harm. As we heard this morning.”
McCowen: “I do think it's unfortunate. I think a committee would be the best approach and I think our first and second option for that and our third and our fourth options are also apparently off the table so I’m concerned about how it's going to be perceived by some members of the community, but I'm willing to meet with members of the public and have as open a process as we can and I will work with County Counsel of course and we will see if it's appropriate to bring something back to the Board and hopefully at that point you will all participate.”
Mike Johnson returned to the microphone to repeat that there’s no need to regulate him or his fellow pot sellers: “It's more or less budgetary but it occurs to me that if none of you guys really wants to be involved, would you be willing to support an ordinance if John [McCowen] comes up with something anyway? So I'm asking are we wasting his time? And the time of everybody who will participate? Are you guys inclined to go on record to support an ordinance like this? Maybe it would be a good use of time if you spent a few minutes somehow discussing what kind of an ordinance you might be willing to support. But in any case we’ll be interested in watching. I think it's a hot potato, obviously. I have a lot of other things, cannabis related issues, concerning the board, the overwhelming one is that we have a global reputation that we are not taking advantage of and we need to boost our economic picture here. We could bring some of this medical cannabis industry to this county.”
Pinches: “How can you advertise something that is federally illegal? That's the first problem that you have to get around.”
Johnson: “That's a huge problem. It's a state’s rights issue. That's the reason why I'm concerned about you guys assuming the liability stepping into the middle of it. I don't know if you know that Pebbles has submitted a bill in Sacramento last Friday to repeal the current laws against cannabis in the state of California and we will be trying to circulate petitions and get signatures and get that on the ballot, but we all want it to be legal and we all want our county to prosper and I don't want us to fail to take advantage of a reputation you couldn't buy with a multibillion dollar ad campaign. It's global. Jim Wattenberger told me repeatedly that it didn't matter if he was meeting with the finance Minister of Canada or a US Senator in Washington DC, they wanted him to provide some of what we are famous for so they could enjoy it! This is not something to be ashamed of. This is a real business. It's happening. We've been putting up with all the negatives of cannabis production for 50 years. Why can't we capitalize on it?”
Matt Cohen: “Addressing what Supervisor Pinches said regarding it being against federal law; alcohol prohibition was against federal law and it took about 23 states to regulate it like pharmacies and liquor distribution stores and so forth and regulating and standardizing and stabilizing the industry before the law is changed at the federal level, so we’re on that path. 9.31 was one of the steps on that path, 9.32 [the dispensary regulations presumed code section] would be another step on that path.”
McCowen: “I think there would be a value to developing what I hope would be a model dispensary ordinance. It’s true that of the dispensaries currently operating in Mendocino County I'm not aware of any current problems. However, all that's required to open the door is a business license. That's a lot less regulation than a lot of other activities go through. But I think there is a real lack statewide in effective models of how dispensaries could be used to both protect the public safety and and fulfill the mandate of Senate Bill 420 to enhance access to patients and dispensaries I think are the best way arguably to provide for a more universal distribution system and there's a lot of trends statewide that are not necessarily favorable to a rural county such as ours so again I just have it in mind that we might be able to, with the help of the community, we might be able to come up with a proposed regulation that would both be effective and fair and I do want to say up front that where I would be going with this is, you know, in terms of big picture, I don't see this limiting any of the current dispensaries. It would be, unless I see something that really causes me to change my mind, going into it, I see no reason not to grandfather in the dispensaries that are currently operating that have demonstrated that they are sensitive to the communities they operate in and the proof of that is we haven't been getting any complaints that I'm aware of. The other thing is I'm not inclined to put a cap on how many could operate in the county. I’m a little astounded at the number we have operating now. But if there is a need for that number of dispensaries, and I think the public will determine that by patronizing them or not, so I don't think we need to come up with an artificial cap.”
Pinches: "Supervisor McCowen, you said that the only thing that a person needs right now is a business license, that is maybe partially true, but before they will issue a business license you have to… it has to be assigned to an address that has the proper zoning for that type of retail business. So that means they can't be issued anywhere, just only in commercial zoning. So that's a pre-restriction. And one of the big problems with the 9.39 [sic] ordinance or the medical dispensary ordinance, is how do you get it transported? You are assuming if you open up a medical marijuana retail shop that it has to get there, right? It's illegal. And the county has no provisions for the transportation of it. It's not covered under the 9.31 ordinance or anything. So you are enticing people to bring your marijuana here to this location but, oh by the way, if you get stopped by the cops you can go to jail. So in a way we're encouraging that missing link which is the transportation of it."
Last Word McCowen: “It's an opportunity to try to fill in some of the gaps and make that start.”
And after all that, the Supervisors still didn’t discuss a moratorium, nor the Planning Commission, nor a timetable.
Presumably, by now the letters to the Board from Anderson Valley residents who oppose Laura Hamburg's proposed downtown Boonville pot dispensary have been received. It’ll be up to Supervisor McCowen to decide what to do with them — someday.