Update: On Tuesday, September 15, 2015, the Board of Supervisors passed a motion directing County Counsel to develop a medical marijuana ordinance in compliance with state law to be effective no later than March 1, 2016; the Supervisor’s Ad Hoc Committee will work to develop a framework for a county Cannabis Commission; and a local taxation measure will be on the Humboldt County ballot as soon as June 2016 or no later than November 2016.
Local control is critical for our future. Humboldt County must take initiative to develop its own land use ordinance to regulate the number, size, and location of operations for commercial cannabis cultivation that fits the specific needs of our forests, fish, farmers and families.
Now is the time, the momentum is here. On Friday, the State of California provided the first ever comprehensive framework to regulate commercial cannabis cultivation. This is huge and much needed, but a work in progress. The new laws will provide clear rules within two years, allow for cultivation of up to one acre of cannabis, and focus on the licensing processes for commercial sales, which includes a requirement for local permitting. Additionally, in August, the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board issued its groundbreaking water quality order , the first regulation by a California state agency designed to address environmental impacts from cannabis cultivation. However, because the regulation was developed by the Water Board, the order only explicitly focuses on water quality issues.
These are monumental steps taken at the behest of cannabis farmers and many others to transition the industry from underground to legitimate. For nearly two decades, since cultivation for medical use was decriminalized, there have been very few rules and regulations to govern what activities are and are not acceptable. Cannabis production increased dramatically, particularly in the last 5 years, where watersheds in Northern California have seen increases in area under production ranging from 55% to over 100% . And because there are no external incentives to improve practices and because law enforcement does not appear to discriminate between good and bad growers, there is a perverse incentive: go real fast, go real big, and take the chance that you’re not going to get caught.
Humboldt County needs to put its own plan in place before we allow more development in our already over allocated watersheds. Because existing and reasonably foreseeable future regulations from the state do not solve our problems, we need to act locally. A county land use ordinance has the potential to regulate the number, size, and location of operations.
The Water Board order provides a good template to base a land use ordinance for Humboldt County. The Water Board framework provides the necessary carrot and stick to bring an industry, which has historically existed only by breaking the law, to come into compliance with the law. Growers who fail to comply with the order will face stiff civil penalties  while growers who comply with the regulation will shift from regulatory targets (“red dots”) to being largely left alone (“green dots”). Furthermore, looking forward, compliance with state and local laws will be one of the criteria that the state considers when granting potentially lucrative growing licenses. Such a framework, which provides incentives for farmers to come into compliance and address the damage that our community is suffering in the absence of appropriate environmental regulation and enforcement.
It is imperative that cultivators begin the process of coming into compliance with the NCRWCQB’s order before February 6, 2016.
California Cannabis Voice Humboldt (CCVH) has led the most recent effort in Humboldt County to advance the creation of a land-use ordinance that focuses on protecting small cannabis farmers. One of the guiding priorities for CCVH in crafting their ordinance was to create a regulatory structure which made sense to the average cannabis farmer, providing clear rules and a structure that would encourage compliance.
The CCVH ordinance rightly focuses on permitting existing operations, ensuring that those folks who are already members of our community have an opportunity to come out of the shadows. Focusing on current operations also establishes a baseline to slow or stop the green rush; new operations above a significant threshold would require a conditional use permit, a process whereby the impact from an additional operation can be scrutinized before any plants are in the ground.
EPIC had previously taken issue with the CCVH ordinance , particularly a portion of the ordinance that could encourage further forest fragmentation through opening land zoned as “timber production zones” or TPZ to commercial cannabis cultivation. As part of CCVH’s public comment period for their draft ordinance, EPIC submitted substantial comments . EPIC, the Northcoast Environmental Center, Humboldt Baykeeper and S.A.F.E. submitted additional recommendations aimed at addressing permitting and licensing for existing operations and mitigating ongoing environmental impacts of the cannabis industry to the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors.
This began a productive dialogue between EPIC and CCVH. Through numerous meetings, calls, emails, and text messages we discussed our vision for Northern California’s forests and farms and realized that our principles were not far apart.
On Tuesday, September 15, 2015, CCVH turns their hard work over to the Humboldt Board of Supervisors along with a series of recommendations . The Board, having received the ordinance language, can run with the baton, sending it through the necessary internal and public review. The Board, which has previously dragged its feet on cannabis regulation due to a lack of clarity from the State, will hopefully feel a greater charge from the public to see this ordinance to completion in an expeditious manner.
To be successful, a local land use ordinance must:
- Stop the “Green Rush.” This is the exploitation mentality of people who have flocked to the region looking to make fast money regardless of the environmental and social consequences of their activities.
- Create a safe haven for existing cultivators who want to come into compliance, without fear of persecution.
- Protect Humboldt County’s small-scale, salmon safe, sun-grown, artisanal cannabis farmers.
- Provide clear lines as to what activities are and are not acceptable.
- Prevent and mitigate the negative environmental impacts associated with cannabis cultivation.
- Halt the further fragmentation and conversion of our working forests for commercial agriculture.
- Mandate that all water used for cannabis cultivation be stored, with no
surface water diversions between May 15 and October 31* (this date is based on the NCWQCB’s new order).
- Create a tax-system for farmers to be able to contribute financially to society.
- Protect Humboldt County from a future filled with Big Tobacco-owned mega-grows.
- Restore damaged watersheds and watershed function.
- Provide adequate funding resources to inspect, enforce, and remediate cultivation areas.
Passage of a land use ordinance is not the end but the beginning. After California legalizes recreational cannabis, the regulatory landscape will become even clearer. A future local land use ordinance that addresses new cannabis cultivation and cultivation for recreational purposes will be necessary. We must remember that regulations and laws are not going to be perfect the first time around and that adaptive management strategies must be employed. The community must work together to provide feedback to agencies and elected officials as the implementation of the new rules are seen to either be effective or ineffective. Through all these steps, EPIC will be there to work with anyone or any group who is sincere in promoting environmentally responsible cannabis cultivation.
* The staff at EPIC believe that all water used for any commercial agriculture should be stored and not diverted from surface waters during the dry season.