Local Elections

El Dorado County legalizes marijuana cultivation and sales

El Dorado County voters Tuesday approved five ballot measures legalizing the cultivation and sale of commercial marijuana.

All five measures passed by wide margins, signaling a shift in the conservative-leaning county, cannabis advocates said. Proposition 64, the state ballot measure that legalized recreational marijuana in California, lost by 123 votes in El Dorado in 2016.

Measures N, P, Q, R and S on Tuesday’s El Dorado ballot addressed commercial cultivation, sale and taxation of marijuana. Measure N allows the county to impose taxes on the sale, cultivation and testing of cannabis, while the other measures focus on the permitting of indoor and outdoor cultivation and sale of both medicinal and recreational marijuana.

The new measures allow the county to issue permits for a maximum of 150 cultivation sites in rural and agricultural areas, as well as up to seven permits each for recreational and medical dispensaries. Miller said that among the six existing medicinal dispensaries in the county, at least three have indicated they would attempt to secure an additional recreational dispensary license.

“We’ve already had people asking at the door, ‘Can I come in and get stuff today?’” said Whitney Marchand, manager of the medicinal dispensary Pure Life Collective in Diamond Springs, referring to recreational marijuana products.

“The public recognizes we have thousands of growers out here and (it) is a substantial part of the economy,” said Rob Miller, head of the El Dorado County Growers Alliance and chairman of the campaign supporting the measures. He estimates the county has at least 2,000 legal and illegal cultivators growing cannabis.

El Dorado will be one of the first counties in the Sacramento region to allow commercial cannabis activity, including retail sales and cultivation. All commercial cannabis activity is banned in Placer County and unincorporated parts of Sacramento County, while only medicinal cannabis can be commercially grown in unincorporated parts of Yolo County, and no dispensaries are permitted in that county.

El Dorado County Sheriff John D’Agostini opposed the measures, telling local media they could lead to increased use of cannabis by kids, and that legalization would not deter illegal operations. D’Agostini and the sheriff’s office did not respond to requests for comment from The Bee.

It will likely take until at least May before the county will be able to issue licenses or permits, said El Dorado County spokeswoman Carla Hass.

“That’s best case scenario in the absence of any significant hiccups,” she said.

Under the ballot measures, the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors has six months to establish its cannabis program, define regulations and approve tax rates.

The ballot measures specify dispensaries could be taxed between 4 percent to 10 percent, and cultivators could be taxed up to $30 per square foot of growing space, or up to 15 percent of total gross receipts.

Because it’s a general tax, the revenue generated from sales and cultivation has no set allocation, though local officials have indicated interest in funding law enforcement efforts and substance abuse programs.

With additional fees, the county could receive anywhere from $1.9 million to $52.8 million annually, according to the county’s voter guide, though a consulting company hired by the county estimated revenue between $3 and $4 million annually. Miller said growers and dispensaries will push for lower taxes and fees to offset the cost of competing against illegal operations.

“There’s no crystal ball that will enable us to figure out at this point how many people will start to engage in cannabis operations who haven’t before, or prognosticate (growers working) above board versus the black market,” Hass said.

Last December, the county banned all commercial cannabis activity excluding existing medicinal dispensaries as part of a crackdown on cannabis cultivators. Hass said the moratorium was meant to give the county time to research and seek public input on cannabis policies as state regulations continue to evolve. Over the last two years, the county has conducted nearly 30 public meetings about marijuana legalization, she said.

Marchand said El Dorado County has one of the largest groupings of cultivators and growers in the state outside of the Emerald Triangle, which is made up of Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties. The rural and agricultural land, coupled with dry, mild weather, makes it ideal for widespread cannabis cultivation, according to Miller.

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