California Weed

With state deadline looming, cities and counties rush to ban pot cultivation

Commercial-style farms grow marijuana in July in mountainous timberland clearings of Humboldt County .
Commercial-style farms grow marijuana in July in mountainous timberland clearings of Humboldt County .

As California seeks to regulate its medical marijuana economy, as well as set rules for personal cultivation, a March 1 deadline is making scores of cities and counties paranoid about how to govern pot.

State lawmakers are rushing to attempt a legislative fix – and remove the deadline – because nearly 100 cities and more than a half dozen counties have abruptly voted to ban marijuana cultivation outright rather than race the clock to draft ordinances to create local growing standards.

The confusion stems from language that was supposed to have been dropped from medical marijuana regulations signed by Gov. Jerry Brown last October.

But bill drafters inadvertently left in the March 1 deadline that said cities and counties that take no action by then must submit to state authority and guidelines that would allow each Californian with a physician’s recommendation for medical use to grow 100 square feet of pot.

The lobbying group the League of California Cities has been aggressively urging municipalities to enact bans to preserve local control over marijuana cultivation and safeguard the possibility of setting their own rules later after a legislative fix.

But marijuana advocates are complaining that cities and counties are stripping away rights of medicinal growers and – in some cases – imposing additional bans on marijuana dispensaries or other pot businesses that weren’t subject to the regulatory deadline.

“Local governments are stampeding to ban as much as possible now, primarily driven by concerns of their city attorneys to keep firm control over medical marijuana,” said Dale Gieringer, California director of the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws, a legalization advocacy group. “A lot them are banning things outright just so they don’t have to deal with it at all.”

While igniting angry protests from medical marijuana patients, the rush to impose bans is highlighting anxiety within California’s 482 cities and 58 counties over new state cannabis governance.

Under medical marijuana regulations that will go into effect by 2018, municipalities must decide on rules for local cultivation as well as whether to permit pot businesses under new rules that will require local and state permits for marijuana dispensaries, kitchens, laboratories, commercial gardens and other enterprises.

I get it that cities and counties are concerned that if they don’t do something they give up their rights. But ... at this point, there is no Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation. There is no bureau chief. There is no staff. There is nobody in place do do anything. It’s time to just take a deep breath, folks.

Assemblyman Jim Wood, D-Healdsburg

Faced with the March 1 deadline for private cultivation, City Council members in Folsom voted Jan. 12 to ban everything. The city previously had allowed medical marijuana patients to cultivate 50 square feet of pot plants indoors with restrictions on electrical use and required inspections by police and fire officials. But the council voted to disallow individual cultivation and also put a ban on all types of marijuana businesses.

“The council voted to eliminate the opportunity to grow, sell or deliver in town,” said David Miller, Folsom’s director of community development and public works. “They neither want retail distribution nor folks growing their own, indoors or outdoors. They took the ultimate opportunity to restrict sales and growing to the maximum extent.”

In contrast, more cannabis-friendly Sacramento, which has 30 medical marijuana dispensaries with city business permits, maintained its rules that permit indoor personal cultivation, up to 400 square feet, in private homes. The city also set a Jan. 26 council vote to impose a 45-day moratorium on commercial cultivation while considering rules that would allow pot businesses to grow in greenhouses or indoor spaces in agricultural, industrial or manufacturing zones.

“We recognize that our City Council has allowed dispensaries and the council ... recommended that staff come up with a proposal allowing cultivation for medical marijuana,” said Joy Patterson, a principal planner for the city. “We want to provide legal plants for our dispensaries and make sure everything is in compliance with state law.”

Among other local jurisdictions, Sacramento County took no action, leaving in place an existing ban on dispensaries and outdoor marijuana gardens as well as its rules allowing medical users to grow nine plants indoors. Placer County supervisors voted to reject a cultivation ban in favor of preserving licensing authority for individual and commercial and other pot businesses while working on drafting long-term rules.

Yolo County hasn’t taken any action and permits marijuana cultivation but bans dispensaries. El Dorado County continues to permit individual patients to grow 200 square feet of plants in fenced-off plots away from neighbors’ property lines.

The medical marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access this week listed 97 cities and seven counties as having banned cultivation due to the March 1 deadline, with 52 more cities and 10 counties considering similar actions.

Advocates complain that even pot-friendly locations are pushing through bans because of confusion over state rules.

Supervisors in Nevada County, long a legendary haven for pot growers, voted to ban outdoor gardens. Liberal Alameda County, a nerve center for the medical marijuana movement, voted to temporarily ban cultivation and delivery services.

“They got scared by the March 1 boogeyman,” Gieringer said.

As cities from Red Bluff to Palm Desert have rushed to ban personal cultivation and, in many cases, other cannabis services, medical marijuana supporters fear the restrictions will be permanent.

They say people with serious illnesses may be left unable to grow or purchase marijuana locally to meet their medical needs. Some say dispensaries could run short of medicinal supplies if too many patient-growers who sell their excess marijuana to stores are banned from cultivating.

“Every day it feels like bans are being passed,” said Kimberly Cargile, a medical marijuana patient who runs the A Therapeutic Alternative dispensary in Sacramento. “It’s turning our patients and businesses into criminals. We really need to do something in writing as soon as possible.”

30Number of medical marijuana dispensaries in Sacramento with city business permits

Assemblyman Jim Wood, D-Healdsburg, one of the authors of medical marijuana regulations signed by the governor, has introduced an urgency bill that will remove the March 1 deadline for setting local cultivation rules. Brown’s office has indicated it supports the fix. The legislation, Assembly Bill 21, was passed in the state Senate Health Committee on Wednesday.

But Wood said the urgent response of many municipalities underscores fears among local governments that they will lose their authority to regulate marijuana if they don’t act aggressively now.

Under California’s regulatory effort, a Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation – funded by a $10 million state loan to be repaid in still-to-be-specified taxes and fees on pot businesses – will oversee the medical cannabis industry. The regulatory effort will involve oversight from state agencies on public health, taxation, consumer affairs, water, fish, wildlife and pesticide control.

Wood said removing the March 1 deadline on personal cultivation rules is an easy fix. But he said construction of the state governance system – on top of local permitting rules – will be a multiyear process, meaning there is little reason for the apparent civic panic.

“To me, that’s one of the biggest frustrations,” Wood said. “I get it that cities and counties are concerned that if they don’t do something they give up their rights. But the reality is there is no state structure right now. At this point, there is no Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation. There is no bureau chief. There is no staff. There is nobody in place do do anything. It’s time to just take a deep breath, folks.”

Tom Cromartie, legislative representative for the League of California Cities, said the organization explicitly advised local governments to enact bans as “a placeholder mechanism” to preserve future rights to regulate or restrict cultivation once the March 1 deadline was removed. He conceded that many cities took additional steps of banning dispensaries, deliveries and other marijuana services.

“Our messaging is all about preserving local regulatory authority,” Cromartie said. “The only authority under threat was over cultivation. But some cities are doing it because they don’t want multiple marijuana issues.”

Paul Smith, senior legislative advocate for Rural County Representatives of California, said, “There is a lot of pressure on boards (of supervisors) and sheriffs” to ban marijuana and pot enterprises because of the state’s “regulatory uncertainty.”

But he said many counties, including foothill and coastal areas that are conducive to marijuana growing, may eventually look to tax and license local pot businesses because “many counties will see economic opportunity.”

Assemblyman Ken Cooley, D-Rancho Cordova, another architect of the state regulations, said local control is critical but that reactive bans don’t constitute effective “long-term California policy.”

“There are going to be plenty of communities that will develop well thought-out policies,” Cooley said. “And as the parade of ‘horribles’ doesn’t materialize” with marijuana regulation, “there are a number of communities that are going to realize they can be more accommodating.”

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