After the Butte Fire destroyed nearly a thousand homes and other structures in 2015, many residents – and more than a few newcomers – took to growing pot on their blackened properties in Calaveras County.
New gardens were sprouting up at such a rate that county supervisors set a June 30 deadline for residents to sign up for county permits as sanctioned cannabis farmers.
Now voters in the Mother Lode county of 44,000 residents will decide whether they want to monetize the county’s passage of tolerant rules permitting cultivation of medical marijuana for commercial sale.
Calaveras’ Measure C could bring millions of dollars into county coffers from a $2-per-square-foot tax on outdoor or greenhouse cultivation. That tax would be replaced by a $45-per-ounce local levy on marijuana buds once a state monitoring program takes effect under medical marijuana regulations signed by Gov. Jerry Brown last year.
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“We need to get money into the county’s pocket they can use wherever they see fit,” said Thomas Liberty, a local cannabis cultivator and initiative backer. “Calaveras is a poor county, and we’re coming off the Butte Fire. They need the money.”
Measure C is just one of two marijuana measures on the November ballot in Calaveras as voters in at least nine California counties and 34 cities will decide more than 50 local initiatives to authorize marijuana farms or tax cannabis dispensaries and manufacturers or govern the pot trade at the community level.
As California voters will decide whether to legalize marijuana for recreational use under Proposition 64, the local measures could signal how much the cannabis economy may grow under expanded legalization and state regulation. They also add to the debate over whether California is acting sensibly on marijuana or surging ahead too fast.
“Now that the state has been legitimizing this industry as a whole, numerous local governments have seen the sky isn’t falling and they’re trying to get on the bandwagon for the economic cannabis pie,” said Nate Bradley, executive director of the California Cannabis Industry Association and a Proposition 64 supporter. “Prop. 64 has clearly helped push this conversation forward at lighting speed.”
Andrew Acosta, a spokesman for the No on 64 campaign, said local governments are putting marijuana initiatives on the ballot because the proposition has accelerated “a massive Gold Rush from marijuana.”
“Localities are digging into (Prop. 64),” Acosta said. “There are communities that are trying to bar the door, and there are communities that are thinking they are going to make a killing on this.”
In Southern California, cities of Adelanto, Cathedral City and Coachella are voting on marijuana business and cultivation taxes as part of efforts to revive beleaguered desert economies by leasing out industrial parks for pot production warehouses.
Voters in Santa Barbara will consider a 20 percent gross receipts tax on dispensaries selling medical or recreational marijuana, and numerous other cities will vote on similar levies ranging from 3 to 18 percent. Ballot measures in Monterey County and four cities there would impose taxes of up to $25 per square foot on commercial cultivation, and residents in San Jacinto in Riverside County will vote on a tax of $50 per square foot.
Near Sacramento, Yuba County’s Measure E, qualified for the ballot by marijuana advocates, would overturn a ban on outdoor marijuana growing and authorize for-profit cultivation on properties of 3 acres or more. The initiative is a different version than another pro-cultivation measure voters rejected 62 to 38 percent in June.
“We’re operating under the idea that the county can continue to pay to prohibit cannabis or the county can reap the rewards of regulating cannabis and moving into the future,” said Eric Salerno, a local medical marijuana advocate and Measure E proponent.
In Marysville, where the city plans to license two dispensaries, Measure F will allow taxes of up to 15 percent on all marijuana sales. Voters in Colfax will consider the same tax ceiling for dispensaries, should the Placer County town later choose to allow them.
Proposition 64 calls for a 15 percent excise tax on sales of marijuana and a $9.25-per-ounce cultivation tax on dried cannabis flowers. Any local taxes approved by voters would be additional.
Ellen Komp, who is tracking local measures for the California chapter of the pro-legalization National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said some local governments may be pushing high taxes to drive out marijuana businesses, not attract them.
“If the prospect of tax dollars is bringing them on board with local licensing, it’s a positive step,” Komp said. “But if the taxes are too prohibitive, they will fuel the black market” for marijuana.
Calaveras County supervisors put Measure C on the ballot after cannabis advocates argued that a sanctioned marijuana industry could provide an economic driver for Calaveras’ recovery from the Butte Fire, the seventh worst in California history in terms of property damage.
In May, supervisors approved an urgency ordinance to allow commercial marijuana gardens of up to a quarter-acre on properties of at least 2 acres and pot farms of half an acre on properties of 4 acres or more. Outdoor growers on larger properties who were in business by May 10 were eligible to seek permits for an acre of cultivation.
Calaveras County Sheriff Rick DiBasilio, who vehemently opposed the cultivation ordinance, signed the Yes on Measure C ballot argument along with Supervisor Cliff Edson, county administrator Shirley Ryan and controller Rebecca Cullen. The statement said the county – a former mining and timber hamlet – has been in economic decline for years and could use revenue for county services after bearing “the cost of the response and recovery from one of the costliest fires in California history.”
Cannabis advocates said the county could reap $4 million from cultivation fees on 200 growers if they averaged 10,000 feet of cultivation. In addition, $5,000 registration fees on each pot farm were expected to cover $1 million in annual oversight costs, including hiring additional deputies and county inspection officers.
But then more than 800 applications piled up for commercial growing permits, including those from prominent real estate agents and a former supervisor. Many applicants were seeking permits for multiple sites. County planners have approved just two permits and have denied more than two dozen to date in a laborious process of inspecting properties and water sources to make sure they’re environmentally suitable for growing while affirming that sites meet distance requirements from neighborhoods and schools.
“There are people growing on properties that aren’t fit for commercial enterprises,” said Liberty, the Calaveras cannabis activist. “They’re too close to residences. They’re not isolated enough.”
Liberty lost his Mountain Ranch home, where he maintained a marijuana garden, in the Butte Fire. Now he is applying for a cultivation permit elsewhere because, on his charred land, “I’m in plain view of anyone who drives by, and I don’t think that’s an appropriate place to be growing cannabis anymore,” he said.
The rush for cultivation permits worries many residents, with tensions revealed in arguments over another initiative, Measure D. It would expand allowable cultivation on some properties and permit local licensing of cannabis product manufacturers, distributors, labs and other businesses.
“Calaveras County is already affected by marijuana growing,” wrote Measure D proponents, among them former supervisor Merita Callaway, retired California Highway Patrol officer Theodore Shannon and retired winery owner Barden Stevenot. “Measure D is comprehensive regulation to control the impacts.”
A citizens group called The Committee to Ban Commercial Cultivation organized to fight the measure.
“It’s up to you to send a clear message to the leadership of this county that marijuana is quickly destroying the peace, environment, panoramic vistas, public safety and general quality of life we all sought when we came here,” the group’s chairman, Bill McManus, wrote in No on D statement. “Don’t let them take that away from you!”
Editor’s note: This story was changed Oct. 11 to identify Merita Callaway as a former Calaveras superviser and Theodore Shannon as a retired California Highway Patrol officer.