California Weed

After fierce political battle, Calaveras votes against banning pot cultivation

'There's a strong "Refer Madness" component going on up here.' Calaveras Country ponders banning commercial marijuana farms

A Calaveras County marijuana producer explains how pot can make the beleaguered region one of the richest in America. But signs posted in rural towns suggest other residents are fed up with weed.
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A Calaveras County marijuana producer explains how pot can make the beleaguered region one of the richest in America. But signs posted in rural towns suggest other residents are fed up with weed.

First, they embraced it. Then, they considered banning it. Now, they’re going to have harsher regulations for it, a move that could leave many early investors out in the cold.

Few places have had more mood swings over marijuana than Calaveras County.

The county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday night voted 3-2 to continue to allow commercial marijuana cultivation, capping nearly two years of political turmoil that has divided the Sierra foothills county of 45,000 people.

Opponents and supporters packed the chambers while an an overflow crowd watched on a monitor in an adjacent room. The board, which had convened early in the morning, continued discussing new regulatory plans into the evening.

The regulatory plans could end up having the same effect as a ban for many growers. The board is considering a cap on 50 parcels with pot grows, despite the fact that the county already has issued permits for close to 200 grows and has applications for another 250 to 300. The county also has collected millions of dollars in marijuana fees.

The cap is likely to receive approval because the supervisor who cast the deciding vote on the ban, Gary Tofanelli, has said he will vote to outlaw marijuana unless the board supports the 50-parcel limit.

The cannabis industry once was seen as a lifeline for this struggling county. Today, household income and employment rates in Calaveras are below the state average, and Highway 49 in the county seat of San Andreas is lined with boarded-up buildings and empty storefronts. The promise of a revival through pot suddenly seems less likely, even with sales of recreational marijuana starting in California Jan. 1.

The county’s inability to decide about what to do with its pot farms has created deep anger and frustration among growers and ban advocates alike. Other California counties have had similar difficulties reaching a consensus on how to respond to statewide legalization laws, but few places previously had been as pot-friendly as Calaveras.

Many county and municipal governments across the state are discussing whether to ban or regulate marijuana grows in part because of the November 2016 passage of Proposition 64, which legalized recreational marijuana in California. In addition, the state this year issued new rules relating to medical marijuana.

Local politics have created financial risks for pioneers in the legal cannabis industry. In Calaveras County, growers who have invested millions of dollars face the possibility of having to pull up stakes and move elsewhere. Farmers in Yolo County are in a similar situation, as supervisors have said they will ban cultivation if voters don’t approve a tax next year, even though the county has permitted 86 grows for commercial medical marijuana.

In Calaveras County, the current Board of Supervisors has been far more critical of the cannabis industry than the board seated this past year. In February 2016, the board had called for the county attorney to write an ordinance that would regulate cannabis farming that had been taking place illegally for years.

The county’s economy, long-suffering, had been hurt by the massive Butte Fire in 2015, and supervisors argued that if the country embraced the cannabis industry and allowed commercial cultivation of medical marijuana, it would provide jobs and tax revenue.

At the time, the supervisors plan, along with cheap land prices due to the fire, created a huge interest in pot farms. The county received 900 applications for cultivation, three times as many as expected. Many people invested in pot farms, and the county collected $3.7 million in fees from marijuana growers, hiring additional police and staff while budgeting services with expectations of additional cannabis tax revenues.

However, other residents complained that the county’s cannabis business experiment had brought in unwanted outsiders, rogue growers and environmental degradation, and the newly elected Board of Supervisors had been considering walking back on issued permits.

Cultivation opponents sought to put a ban on the ballot, but a judge tossed the measure because of illegal language. The Board of Supervisors discussed a ban throughout this year.

When the issue came back to the board for another discussion this week, advocates on both sides of the issue said they were sick of inaction. “Are you going to participate in organized crime or are you going to get rid of it?” asked Bill McManus, chairman of the Committee to Ban Commercial Cultivation.

Joan Wilson, a marijuana farmer, said she has grown dismayed by the county’s failure to approve regulations and take on black-market growers – when she paid permit fees for the county to do those things.

“You have gone back and forth on this issue, pulling both sides with you,” she told the board Tuesday. “Some of you campaigned saying you didn’t need this money. Then you voted to use the money to balance the budget.”

Supervisors acknowledged they have struggled to come up with a solution. Following public comments Tuesday, chairman Michael Oliveira said the board should have given up trying to reach its own solution.

“It should have gone to the people for a vote,” he said, after hearing complaints repeatedly about the board’s indecisiveness.

Supervisors still have to approve a regulatory program. They plan to continue discussing it Thursday.

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