Ad Hoc-ing Mendo’s Pot Rules
by Jane Futcher, March 23, 2016
The Mendocino County Board of Supervisors’ Medical Marijuana Ad Hoc Committee unveiled its recommendations for countywide medical cannabis cultivation permits Tuesday. If revised and adopted by the board quickly, permits could be issued in late spring or summer by the county Department of Agriculture.
In an unusually upbeat meeting at the supervisors’ chambers in Ukiah, cannabis cultivators thanked the supervisors for listening to their needs and creating permits that will help them compete in a state and nation where cannabis prices are falling fast due to legalization.
“This is just a proposal,” Supervisor Tom Woodhouse of the Ad Hoc Committee said at the start of the two-and-a-half hour hearing. “What we have is a direction.”
The proposed plan, a revision and expansion of the county’s 9.31 cannabis program, offers cultivation permits for: cottage; outdoor; mixed light, and indoor cannabis cultivation. Exemptions may be possible for farmers growing no more than 25 mature plants for personal, caregiver or collective/cooperative use.
The county’s marijuana committee has been working on its recommendations since the state’s Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act was signed into law in December. Because the state will not be issuing licenses until Jan. 1, 2019, local governments have been asked to develop their own guidelines or follow those outlined by MMRSA.
“By adopting policies that we believe are advantageous to small growers, we will perhaps influence the state to adopt policies that are beneficial to all growers,” Supervisor John McCowen, the other cannabis committee member, said to about 70 people at the hearing.
The proposed outdoor cultivation permits are:
—Cottage: 25 plants not to exceed 2,500 square feet of total canopy size (2,000 sq. ft. of cultivation area triggers regional water board waiver requirement)
—Type 1: 50 mature plants not to exceed 5,000 square feet of total canopy size
—Type 2: 99 mature plants not to exceed 10,000 square feet of total canopy size on one premises
The mixed light cultivation permits using a combination of natural and supplemental artificial lighting are:
—Cottage: Less than or equal to 2,500 square feet of cultivation area within a structure
—Type 1B: Less than or equal to 5,000 square feet of cultivation area within a structure
—Type 2B: Between 5.001 and 10,000 square feet of cultivation area within a structure
The indoor cultivation permits using exclusively artificial lighting are:
—Type 1A: Less than or equal to 5,000 square feet of cultivation area within a structure
—Type 2A: Between 5,001 and 10,000 square feet of cultivation area within a structure
Each permit category spells out zoning and parcel-size as well as some specific licensing or inspection requirements. For example, a Type 2 Permit for outdoor cultivation of 99 mature plants must be located on agricultural, rangeland, upland residential, or rural residential land and a minimal parcel size of 10 acres. An application and unique identification, like a zip tie, are required, as well as a pre-site inspection, a mid-season inspection and a certified third-party inspection.
As a means of protecting current farmers against an influx of outside growers and possible negative community and environmental impacts, the board suggested that cultivation permits for larger operations be granted only to those “associated with an established residence.” This could be a requirement for all farmers.
Agricultural Commissioner Chuck Morse, whose department will be responsible for developing an ordinance with county counsel, gave a presentation prior to public comment on elements of the permitting and compliance program. Each plant, he said, will have a unique ID, such as a zip tie, and a “track and trace” system that will parallel the state’s. He said he and the Sheriff Department will need to reach out to the whole county and do “a lot of education” on the permits, the inspection process, safety measures, environmental issues, and enforcement.
Many farmers, Morse said, have asked the Agriculture Department to develop an organic or sustainable growing program or certification that would help county farmers develop a Mendocino “brand” or appellation. He said he hopes to do that.
More than 20 people, many of them leaders of the local cannabis community, offered comments after Morse’s presentation.
“Thank you very much for moving this thing forward,” said Casey O’Neill, a Laytonville farmer and chair of the California Growers Association. “The supervisors have been very open and supportive.” O’Neill suggested a tiered system of taxes would make it easier for small farms to make the transition into compliance.
Tim Blake, Laytonville founder of the Emerald Cup and one of the original members of the county’s 9.31 program, said the county did an admirable job with that program. He urged the board to hand over permit enforcement duties for all permit types, including larger gardens, to the Department of Agriculture not the Sheriff’s Department. “Don’t criminalize these people,” he said.
Julia Carrera, a 9.31 third party inspector and leader of the Small Farmers Association, said the SFA is “happy to be working with the sheriff until the Agriculture Department can get caught up.” She and several others also asked that the county offer a permit for medical research, which requires a higher plant count as breeders test different strains.
“The corporate takeover is here,” Carrera said. “It’s happening and it’s huge.”
Longtime cannabis activist and Skunk Magazine editor Pebbles Trippet said she supports the establishment of a cannabis commission made up of cannabis stakeholders and other community members to advise the Board of Supervisors. This had been part of the Mendocino Cannabis Policy Council local initiative for the November ballot but somehow got lost in recent revisions.
“(An independent commission) would present a transparent process which has never existed in this county,” Trippet said.
Justin Calvino told the board he fears that a residency requirement would discourage commercial use and development. He also urged the creation of a cottage license for indoor cultivation.
Not all speakers were enthusiastic about the proposed permits. Chris Brennan, who identified himself as a rancher from Laytonville, was concerned that more grows in rangeland and rural areas would expose wildlife, including bears, to concentrated fertilizers, including organic additives. He said bears sometimes drag fertilizer that is not properly stored into areas where smaller animals, including on one occasion his own hounds, can eat it, become ill and die. He recommended growers be required to store fertilizers in metal, bear-proof boxes so bears can’t get to them.
Paul Truett of the Mendocino County Black Tail Deer Association said he thought that the proposed 25-plant cottage programs in upland and rangeland would add to such problems as illegal water diversion, sediment discharge and soil erosion. He threatened to sue the county, based on non-compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act, if it allows large medical cannabis gorws.
Jude Thilman of Dragonfly Nursery and Healing Center in Fort Bragg said the number of cannabis patients has risen astronomically in California. “We produce the best cannabis in the world,” Thilman said. One of her concerns about the proposed permits was that the zoning “seems haphazard” and should be expanded. “We are here to be regulated. Let’s make sure we’re not driving anybody underground.”
Other concerns from the public were: The need for transportation permits; concerns that growers who space plants far apart not be penalized by square footage limits; and the need for nursery and research permits.
Following public comment, the supervisors reviewed many of the 23 points in the Ad Hoc Committee’s written recommendations. Dan Hamburg posed the county might go with square footage instead of plant counts and was opposed to caps on permits. He also wondered if the county “shouldn’t go directly to the Ag Department, moving enforcement from criminal to civil.”
Much of the discussion focused on whether the Department of Agriculture had the staff to take on such a big job. Although Agriculture Commission Morse said he could staff up quickly, and county CEO Carmel J. Angelo said she would make staffing his department a priority, the supervisors were not all persuaded that he, and not the Sheriff’s Department, should oversee the entire program, particularly enforcement of 99-plant medical cannabis grows.
McCowen and Woodhouse suggested the county create a registry of participants in order to gauge how many farmers might be participating in the programming.
“We don’t know it it’s 100 or 1,000,” Woodhouse said.
Sheriff Tom Allman, who arrived toward the end of the supervisors’ discussion, seemed disconcerted by what he was hearing.
“While people are drooling over the possibility of a recreational marijuana law being passed by the voters this fall, the true reality is that it has’t been passed,” Allman said. “And cultivation of commercial marijuana in California is a felony. Let’s be very clear on this.
“I don’t want anyone to think the Sheriff’s Office is going to stop eradicating illegal marijuana until the law at a state level dictates that’s going to be our change. . . . I’ve been sitting her for quite a while, and I haven’t heard the word medical at all. It’s almost as if we are talking 2017 right now. It’s not 2017, it’s 2016. . . If you’re watching this on TV and you’ve already bought a new car, I’m sorry. You don’t need to be turning into a commercial marijuana operation thinking this is the golden goose egg because it’s not going to work. I’m sorry.”
McCowen reiterated that county cultivation permits would be granted only for medical marijuana, and that the Sheriff’s Office would take action if it sees cultivation activity in violation of the law.
Despite the sheriff’s sober warning, after the hearing Swami Chaitanya said committee’s proposals were a big step forward.
“It’s wonderful to hear the Board of Supervisors actually starting to pay attention to us and calling us stakeholders,” Chaitanya said. “They’ve come a long way and I think it’s a result of two years of work by all these different groups who are what we are calling stakeholders — the MCPC, SFA, EGA — and they are starting to listen to us and they are starting to realize that we’re real people.
“And the other thing is that we’re starting to realize that they’re real people. And now we know their names; we’ve had social gatherings with them. They’ve come a long way to realize that we’re not just these crazy hippies back in the mountains either. We’re having a dialogue and that’s the key thing, and hopefully they will start to realize the crucial issues for us are agriculture and also to open up the zoning so that people will have the right to grow this magic medicine wherever they need to grow it.”
The Ad Hoc Medical Marijuana Committee said it hopes to have a new draft of recommendations as early as next month.
(Jane Futcher is the host of The Cannabis Hour, on KZYX FM)