Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union
ARCATA – Arcata’s Planning Commission last week approved a resolution creating a Medical Marijuana Innovation Zone (MMIZ) on West End Road. The resolution will next go to the City Council for possible further modification and final approval.
The MMIZ designates 12 parcels near Aldergrove Industrial Park as sites where medical cannabis-related businesses may start up and operate with a minimum of bureacracy and just by obtaining routine permits.
The controversial, somewhat risky scheme has multiple aims: to bring order to a burgeoning cannabis industry and bring it out of the underground and residential neighborhoods; to incentivize the industry to create well-paying jobs; to help restore the blighted area in and around the shattered Humboldt Flakeboard plant; and to enlarge Arcata’s tax base.
The ideal result would be a sustainable, environmentally friendly cannabis themed industrial park that capitalizes on Arcata’s natural and workforce assets, creates jobs and tax revenue.
But many residents, particularly neighbors, foresee problems with marijuana becoming even more accessible to young people, cannabis odors wafting through adjacent neighborhoods, more traffic and other impacts. The prospect of Arcata becoming an officially endorsed cannabis capital of sorts does not sit well with some.
Some current cannabis businesspeople consider the new regulations arbitrary, or too restrictive in terms of growing space and compliance requirements.
Police Chief Tom Chapman has expressed concern about illegal activity by those accustomed to skirting the law. These include diversions – that is, cannabis grown elsewhere illegally and brought to Arcata for processing, which amounts to “marijuana laundering,” as he called it.
“We’d be supporting some of those grows that are just offensive or destructive,” Chapman said.
Still, he said other states that have already legalized could offer helpful lessons in cannabis regulation. “There are models out there that have had varying degrees of success,” he said. “Why reinvent the wheel?”
Those accommodations may be born of necessity. The alternative – doing nothing and allowing Arcata’s obsolete, grow house-oriented cannabis regulations to remain as the only city regulatory standards even as legalization looms – is seen by city staff as not just a prescription for more mid-2000s-style dysfunction, but a missed opportunity. Thus the MMIZ.
Last week’s hearing, the third on the topic at the Planco, brought some last-minute changes to the plan. Staff and commissioners had expressed concern about the MMIZ being used for large-scale cultivation.
Indoor mega-grows could, depending on how they’re set up, consume vast amounts of electricity, provide negligible employment and possibly minimize creation of more artisanal, value-added forms of cannabis production.
But after testimony by cannabis industry speakers and discussion of carbon offsets being required, a limit of 10 percent or 1,000 square feet of a building’s floor area being committed to growing was raised to 25 percent or 4,000 square feet.
Some citizens and area businesspeople said they had not received adequate notice of the pending plans. Some neighboring businesspeople wanted to be included in the MMIZ, though one didn’t want to be “surrounded by it.”
Current cannabis dispensary operators believe the limits on growing space are too restrictive, and are looking at growing vertically – that is, with stacked plant-growing systems.
Chair Robert Flint maintained that the emphasis should be on “value-added products” rather than grows. But those wishing to exceed 4,000 square feet could do so with an additional Conditional Use Permit.
Community Development Director Larry Oetker said compliance will be a major component for businesses operating the MMIZ, as will be monitoring that compliance for the city.
Commissioner Judith Mayer lamented the subtle duplicity involved with the MMIZ. “The border between medical and recreational marijuana is really thin,” she said. “Pretending that we’re legislating for medical marijuana and that its not going to turn into something else is a fiction.”
Commissioner Paul Hagen took umbrage at citizens implying that city officials hadn’t provided notice.
“People accuse staff of not following the law, and I find that offensive,” he said. “We’re trying to create something new here.”
Commissioner Chuck Giannini dismissed the usefulness of any requirement for carbon credits, which the City of Arcata markets to benefit the city’s Forest Fund, as a sham. “The trees are growing anyway,” Giannini said. “We don’t need to pay the city for it.”
The City Council is expected to consider the MMIZ plant its Oct. 7 meeting.