County cannabis policy evolving

Daniel Mintz
Mad River Union

HUMBOLDT - As a deadline in new state law closes in, the county is working to define how commercial production of medical marijuana will be regulated.
Recently-approved state law names March 1 as the deadline for local governments to adopt regulatory ordinances. If the deadline is not met, the state’s new licensing regulations take effect locally.
The county’s Planning Commission has been tasked with fielding public comment and approving recommendations on a draft county ordinance by Dec. 3. That process got underway at a Nov. 6 commission hearing.
Draft regulations are in flux regarding permit requirements and grow area sizes. But the overall concept of the draft ordinance is to define medical marijuana as a commercial agricultural product that can be grown outdoors and indoors in lands zoned for general agriculture.
ye olde pot leafThe goal is to draw growers out of remote, environmentally-sensitive areas and into areas that are suitable for crop production. The ordinance’s approach to regulation is to focus on grow area sizes rather than parcel sizes.
Commercial grows with areas of 500 square feet or less would only require over-the-counter, staff-approved permits. Grows between 500 and 2,000 square feet would require special permits, which are also staff-approved but could include extra conditions and a public hearing.
The draft law’s next permit tier is one of its most controversial aspects. Grows between 2,000 and 10,000 square feet would require conditional use permits, which are costly and require Planning Commission approval.
Parcel size does factor into grows of over 10,000 square feet, as they’re required to be done on parcels of over five acres.
Agriculture is an allowable use on Timber Production Zone (TPZ) parcels, but the draft ordinance only allows medical marijuana cultivation on them if grows have been in operation as of Sept. 1, 2015.
All permits would require operation plans that demonstrate compliance with legal requirements on water storage, drainage, habitat protection, chemical use and other public and environmental health standards.
Public comment took up much of last week’s commission hearing, with 26 people weighing in.
New advocacy groups have emerged as the county advances its regulations. The Humboldt County Medical Cannabis Union represents marijuana farmers and workers and its founder described the conditional use permit requirements as “a step in the wrong direction” and said that “prohibitive costs and extreme regulations will crush the small farmer’s chances of success and usher in an era of large-scale corporate farms.”
A representative of the Mattole Sustainable Farmers Guild, a “newly-formed agricultural cooperative” in the Mattole Valley, said the draft ordinance discourages “white market compliance” and should only require conditional use permits for grows of over 10,000 square feet.
Andy Powell, the public outreach coordinator for California Cannabis Voice Humboldt, agreed, saying that the county’s ordinance “needs to work with Humboldt County farmers and not against them.”
Establishment of a new “Humboldt heritage” permit was recommended by Robert Sutherland of the Humboldt/Mendocino Marijuana Advocacy Project. He said the heritage permit would seek to preserve the county’s “winner specialty” – sun-grown, organic marijuana – by having a maximum grow area size of 3,000 square feet and requiring organic certification.
Natalynne DeLapp of the Environmental Protection Information Center vouched for a cap on the county’s total number of grow permits and restricting indoor grows to industrial and commercial zones. She agreed with the draft ordinance’s prohibition of new grows in TPZ areas.
Jen Kalt of Humboldt Baykeeper also said a cap on permits would be “a good way to keep things from getting out of control” and recommended that new regulations include prohibitions on using trucked water.
Commissioners were concerned about the draft ordinance’s Mitigated Negative Declaration environmental review document. It’s a type of review that acknowledges impacts but declares them to be mitigated through implementation of the ordinance.
Analysis of baseline or currently existing levels of impact includes estimating current grow site numbers.
Gordon Leppig, a supervising environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife said that a “reasonably conservative” estimate of the county’s number of grow sites is between 3,000 and 5,000.
Commissioners will delve deeper into the draft ordinance’s content in their near-future meetings. But there was some cursory discussion toward the end of last week’s hearing.
There was disagreement among commissioners on the idea of establishing a cap on grow site numbers. Commissioner Ben Shepherd questioned how a cap number would be arrived at and said a “green rush” for permit applications would be on, as growers would race to get in under the cap.
Commissioner Noah Levy said he believes a cap “could do a lot of good” by incentivizing timely compliance and lending credibility to the concept of impact mitigation.
The commission continued its review of the draft ordinance during a special meeting on Nov. 10.

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