Update on County Commercial Medical Cannabis Ordinance: Victory on the Horizon?

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Thursday, January 14th, 2016

IMG_3871Humboldt County is moving forward with regulating medical cannabis production with a final ordinance set to be passed on January 26, 2016. With the language of the ordinance still being solidified by county planning staff, nothing set in stone until the Board of Supervisors takes a final action—however, below is our best reading of the tea leaves of where the Board stands as of the time of press (spoiler alert: it looks pretty decent):

♦ No new operations in forestlands and incentives for cultivators operating in sub-prime locations such as steep terrain, or sensitive upper watershed conditions, etc. to retire, remediate and/or relocate to flatter agricultural lands.

♦ All operations must adhere to strict environmental requirements, including a water withdrawal forbearance period from May 15 to October 31, prohibition on use of non-organic pesticides, prohibition of use of trucked water, and meet specific performance standards.

♦ For commercial outdoor and mixed-light operations, tiered approval with more stringent, site-specific review triggered by higher square footage.

♦ Operations between 500-5,000 sq. ft. will require a zoning clearance certificate (a ministerial permit—after all conditions are met).

♦ Operations between 5,000-10,000 sq. ft. will require a special use permit. A special use permit provides an additional layer of oversight. It is handled by county planning staff, much like a zoning clearance certificate, but affords neighbors the opportunity to provide feedback to staff. If necessary, planning staff or neighbors may request a formal hearing before the Planning Commission.

♦ Operations greater than 10,000 sq. ft. will require a conditional use permit.

♦ For indoor operations, all operations require zero net energy or a carbon offset.

♦ For industrial or commercial parcels, up to 5,000 sq. ft. with ministerial permit and up to 10,000 sq ft. with conditional use permit.

♦ For lands zoned for agricultural production (AG and AE), the ordinance would cap operations at 5,000 sq. ft.

♦ Grows up to 22,000 sq. ft. considered through a master planning process with accompanying EIR.

♦ Set noise abatement standards for generators to a decibel level appropriate to avoid harm to wildlife, likely between 25db and 60db.

Overall, the ordinance is pretty decent—and given the myriad of stakeholders and complexity of the issue—we’ll take pretty decent. And included in the decent is a number of hard fought battles (and victories), most notably no new operations in forest lands, including Timber Production Zone (TPZ) lands!

How did we get here? To quote the Grateful Dead, “What a long, strange trip it’s been.” In October 2014, California Cannabis Voice Humboldt (CCVH) invited EPIC, the NEC, and SAFE to participate in an early stakeholders meeting for a draft ordinance that CCVH intended to submit to voters. For the next year, CCVH was hard at working developing an ordinance, issuing a half dozen draft ordinances, with environmental voices providing critical review and comment.

While CCVH was hard at work, the State got in the game. On September 11, 2015, the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board passed a waiver of waste discharge requirements for commercial cannabis producers, the first real environmental regulation directly applied to cannabis. In fall 2015, the State legislature passed a trio of laws to regulate medical cannabis production (AB 243, AB 266, & SB 642). These laws expressly gave the County permission to regulate commercial medical cannabis production and provided a deadline of March 1, 2016, by which counties were to promulgate local regulations. Just four days later, on September 15, 2015, CCVH decided not to run an independent voter initiative campaign and generously turned their ordinance over to the Board of Supervisors to use as a template.

The Humboldt County Supervisors were tasked with striking a balance between competing forces. If cultivators do not participate, no performance standards or environmental mitigations will be followed, which would not help attenuate the problems facing our watersheds and human communities. This is the crux of the issue within the development of Humboldt County’s ordinance—a sweet spot must be achieved that will maximize participation while providing enough oversight and environmental protection.

Collectively, we are in the process of ushering in a new paradigm for commercial cultivation of medical cannabis in Humboldt County. We are preserving local control, beginning to mitigate the adverse impacts of unregulated cannabis production, and providing a legitimate framework for legal economic activity that can benefit both farmers and the public.

Click here to read comments on the cannabis ordinance from EPIC and our conservation allies (1-8-16).

Click here to read comments (12-31-15)