Santa Maria Times: County temporarily bans recreational marijuana operations

Santa Maria Times: County temporarily bans recreational marijuana operations

Mike Hodgson

Feb 14, 2017

Nonmedical marijuana operations were temporarily banned in Santa Barbara County on Tuesday by the Board of Supervisors, to allow the staff and board time to adopt a permanent ordinance, including plans for licensing, permitting and tax and fee schedules.

In a series of 4-1 votes, the supervisors banned cultivation, packaging and distribution of recreational marijuana and directed staff to bring back an ordinance to regulate the industry for the board to consider as well as a registry of all the cultivation operations in the county.

They also created a short-term ad hoc committee consisting of supervisors Das Williams and Steve Lavagnino to help develop the ordinance, license and permit processes, fees and taxes.

For the time being, staff said the county will keep medical and recreational marijuana regulation separate, but the board could choose to merge the two into a single regulatory process in the future.

Staff recommended adopting the temporary ban to have some kind of regulations in place by January 2018; otherwise, the county would lose local control over recreational marijuana and the state would regulate the industry in the county.

Just how to regulate it, though, is a complex issue, which one resident described as “trying to fly an airplane while building it.” County staff said it was unlikely an entire set of permanent regulations could be worked out before the state deadline.

For example, Dennis Bozanich, deputy county executive officer, noted in his report to the board that there are 19 categories of state licenses, and 13 of those relate to cultivation. The rest apply to other aspects like processing, transportation and delivery.

“The board could consider licensing or prohibiting any or all use types,” he said, noting certain conditions could be attached to various licensing types or the county could have its own different licenses.

However, he and County Counsel Michael C. Ghizzoni noted its unlikely the state will have the ability to start issuing licenses in January 2018, and likely won’t be able to until later that year.

Ghizzoni said the board could start off with an ordinance regulating recreational marijuana, then move into regulating it through zoning codes.

“There’s probably a million different ways we could go after this,” Lavagnino said, noting supervisors must come up with something they can live with.

He also pointed out that although the county banned medical marijuana dispensaries in the unincorporated areas, some 50 organizations are dispensing medical marijuana in the county through mobile deliveries.

“Pandora’s box has been opened and society has gone off on what will be a very expensive experiment,” Supervisor Peter Adam said. “We have to stand aside because we can make it so expensive to close all those down. … It’s out there, it’s ubiquitous.”

He also pointed out marijuana is still a Class 1 substance under federal law, and he didn’t want it to “back into agriculture” but to be dealt with as a “pharmaceutical product.”

“This is a mess and we’ve got to do the best that we can to protect public safety and enforce the law,” Williams said, adding the status quo is not working. “The only way we can regulate it is to permit something."

Most of those who spoke during public comment at the meeting in the board’s Santa Maria meeting room favored the county regulating the industry and collecting fees or taxes to cover the cost of enforcement.

Some supported regulation to provide a way to take enforcement action against growing operations that create a nuisance or are not operating in compliance with state and local laws.

More than one public speaker pointed out the state had classified marijuana as an agricultural product.

“Until you apply heat to cannabis, you don’t have THC,” said Jonathan McKee, referring to the active ingredient. “The Ag Element is how to regulate it.”

Several people who are involved in cultivation and other aspects of the industry spoke in favor of the county regulating and taxing the industry, although one noted “extreme taxation” is not the way to pay for enforcing the regulations.

John Thiella, of the Santa Barbara Cannabis Business Council, presented the board with a recommended ordinance that could be used by the county as a template and expressed interest in working with the ad hoc committee.

Several of the speakers urged the board to create a registry of all those working in the industry.

“A local registry is urgently needed to prevent a black market and to recognize legal operations,” said Michael Grillo of Elite Garden, which provides products and services to the cannabis industry.

Two people from the cut flower industry said they have struggled for decades, but the medical marijuana industry has given them new opportunities with no increase in water use and they favored permitting all aspects of the industry.

But Renee O’Neill, of Tepusquet, said while she is not personally opposed to medical marijuana use, she wants to see strong regulations that provide enforcement of problem operations.

She said there are four illegal cultivation operations in her community, and one has bulldozed oak woodlands, produces light pollution and hauls in 50,000 to 60,000 gallons of water a week, 2,000 gallons at a time.

She said her neighbors have been threatened, but the problems can’t be resolved because the county has no ordinances to regulate the operations.

Andy Caldwell, who said he only half represented COLAB because the board hasn’t discussed the issue, told supervisors he had mixed feelings about recreational marijuana.

The state has decided it’s an agricultural product, so farmers have told him it should be handled as an ag product. Typically, ag products are not taxed at the grower level but at the consumer level, he said.

“But there are health and safety issues,” he said, noting the federal government is hassling banks about taking in the money from marijuana operations. Some doctors are worried about marijuana causing problems with schitzophrenia, while some people say it saved their lives.

“I don’t know how to settle this because the state screws so many things up,” Caldwell said. “I don’t know if this will be a cash cow or not.”

But several speakers wanted supervisors to prohibit cultivation, particularly outdoors, in residential areas, complaining about crime and the stench.

Supervisors couldn’t agree on all aspects of the issue, including the registry and the ad hoc committee.

“This whole industry for me is really troubling,” said Supervisor Janet Wolf, saying it went against everything she’s seen in her work with health organizations and youth. “I don’t see any benefit in this, but obviously the voters disagreed with me.”

She dissented on the votes to create the registry and the ad hoc committee. Williams dissented on the vote to temporarily ban all operations.

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