Commercial Marijuana Cultivation Rules Set Few Limits

December, 2015

On October 9, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law three bills—SB643, AB266, and AB243— that form a long-overdue statewide framework to regulate commercial medical marijuana cultivation and distribution. The framework creates a process by which counties and cities can issue local permits to create regulations more restrictive than the state’s—or they can ban cultivation entirely. The deadline for adopting local rules governing permits is March 1, although Assemblymember Jim Wood plans to change that date as soon as possible. Despite the proposed change, Humboldt County is rushing to put a cultivation ordinance in place as fast as it can to meet that March 1 deadline.

As reported in the Oct/Nov issue of EcoNews, the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors voted on September 15 to take the lead on developing a cultivation ordinance for parcels over five acres, a process that was spearheaded by industry lobbyists late last year.

On October 30, Humboldt County staff released its draft ordinance for review by public and the Planning Commission, which will submit its recommendations to the Board of Supervisors for another series of public hearings. General support for the draft ordinance was expressed in letters from the Department of Fish and Wildlife, Humboldt County Farm Bureau, Buckeye Conservancy, and many environmental organizations and individuals who recognize the need to bring this industry into compliance with state and local regulations designed to protect the environment and public safety.

However, after seven public hearings on the ordinance, it has become clear that the majority of Humboldt County Planning Commissioners want to open the doors for expansion of the Green Rush. While we appreciate the Planning Commission’s recommendations for limits on water trucking and a one-year window for permit applications, many other votes will result in very few limitations on the industry, including:

• No limit on the number of new grows that would be permitted;
• No limit on the number of permits overall;
• No limits on the number of permits per parcel;
• No limits on indoor cultivation relying on diesel and gas generators;
• No limit on the amount of Timber Production Zone (TPZ) or agricultural land that can be converted to marijuana cultivation;
• Large increases in the size of cultivation areas proposed in the draft ordinance (see below).

Back-to-the-landers representing HUMMAP, the Humboldt Mendocino Marijuana Advocacy Project, have argued eloquently for sun-grown, organic grow sites under 3,000 square feet to ensure the quality and competitiveness of the “Humboldt brand,” but the Planning Commission voted against including such a concept, stating it’s better left to the County Agricultural Commissioner and third-party certification.

As we go to print, County staff is incorporating the Planning Commission recommendations into the draft ordinance for the Planning Commission’s final review on December 1. Staff will also need to revise the Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND), the environmental analysis which claims that all impacts to water quality, protected species such as coho and Chinook salmon, fisher, and southern torrent salamander, traffic, noise, etc. will be mitigated to “less than significant.” However, what mitigations will remain after the Planning Commission review is unclear until their recommendations are finalized on December 3.

With an estimated 19,000 parcels eligible for cultivation, and very few limits on expansion of new and existing grows, the environmental review has been cast into question. It remains to be seen how this ordinance will put the brakes on an industry that has taken advantage of the region’s infamous lack of enforcement.

Impacts from illegal water diversion, irresponsible grading, and clearing of forests for grow sites have expanded exponentially in recent years. Salmon streams are particularly hard hit from the combined impacts of drought, decades of harmful logging practices, and unchecked marijuana operations. The cumulative effects from all of these impacts threaten our once-great salmon runs, which are teetering on the brink of extinction. Allowing unlimited new grows without meaningful limits would be unconscionable.

The Board of Supervisors will need to make major changes for the ordinance and its MND to withstand the inevitable legal challenges. Stay tuned for upcoming opportunities to voice your views on the need to protect salmon streams, wildlife habitat, timberland, and farmland while providing reasonable paths to legitimacy as the end of marijuana prohibition looms
on the horizon.

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