Placer County Strong-Armed into Banning Commercial Cannabis Cultivation

Scrutiny increased on Placer county after officials released a video describing their process.

June 27 – Placer County, which had been leading the way among rural counties in codifying the new state MMRSA medical marijuana law at the local level, voted last week to restrict cannabis cultivation in its unincorporated areas to 6 plants or 50 square feet (whichever is less), grown indoors.

The move came after representatives from the offices of Congressman Doug LaMalfa and state Senator Jim Nielsen appeared before the board to present a letter warning of “great peril” from “a lax and broad marijuana ordinance that is contrary to Federal law.” The letter was also signed by Assemblymembers Ted Gaines, Beth Gaines, Frank Bigelow, and Brian Dahle. In addition, Placer officials traveled to the city councils of cities within Placer county and met with resistance to allowing outdoor cultivation from local police chiefs.

Rep. Jim Wood, co-author of MMRSA, and Lori Ajax, head of the new BMMR department tasked with implementing MMRSA, were asked by activists and Cal NORML to contact Placer county, but remained silent. At the BMMR meeting in Oakland, officials said they were overwhelmed about outreach to locals, but were attempting to do so. California has 58 counties and over 400 cities, and many have moved to ban cultivation rather than bother to implement MMRSA (for now, at least).

The option chosen by the Placer board was the most restrictive of five alternatives presented. The least restrictive of the options would have recouped as much as $15 million in tax revenue; instead the county estimates it will spend nearly one million dollars to implement its ordinance, without recouping any tax dollars whatsoever.

Ironically, the increased crime and lack of environmental regulation warned of in the LaMalfa letter are now sure to be a bigger problem in Placer county. In a letter to the Supervisors, Cal NORML asked them “not to cave in to pressure from those who would endanger Placer County residents and its natural resources by encouraging out-of-compliance marijuana grows as the only means of filling the ready market for marijuana products in California…. in the long term, regulation is the only answer to protect public safety and the environment, and more and more, locals are seeing that is true.” Cal NORML’s letter pointed to Calaveras County and Yolo County as two places that are now regulating commercial medical marijuana cultivation with success. Calaveras will bring in well over $1 million license fees before its June 30 deadline, and Yolo’s ordinance requires compliance with state water regulations for licensing.

LaMalfa, who is a USDA-subsidized rice farmer, and Nielsen are both staunch opponents of marijuana legalization. Nielsen’s PAC, the Golden State Leadership Council, contributed $10,000 against Prop. 19 a 2010 measure that would have legalized marijuana for recreational use in California.

Also at work against local implementation is the national group SAM, whose northern California chapter is headed by real estate agent Don Bessee of Nevada County. Ironically, Nevada County is the one place where residents voted in favor of less restrictive regulations on the June ballot: Voters in there rejected a ban on outdoor cultivation of medical marijuana by 58%. And while real estate prices in counties that have banned marijuana cultivation tend to erode, they are skyrocketing in places that allow for cultivation.

Except in a few progressive counties like Humboldt and Mendocino, which are working to license farmers under the new MMRSA law, the cottage industry that has propped up rural economies throughout the state—and made California’s cannabis the best in the world—is in peril. A few places like Adelanto and Desert Hot Springs are licensing just a few large operations, and already figuring out that their electrical grid won’t support their plans. Adelanto is cracking down on relatively small commercial grows even as it moves to license larger ones, plus manufacturing. A similar situation is happening in Monterey county, where officials are allowing (for now) only a few large cultivators to operate under a pilot plan, and there is pressure to force all farming inside existing greenhouses gone fallow rather than allow for small outdoor farms.

Even while locals are seeking to ban medical marijuana operations, they’re working to tax them into oblivion. Marysville passed a measure that would tax the retail sale of cannabis through dispensaries at 5 percent of gross receipts, but could be amended to not exceed 15 percent at some point. Also eligible for taxation would be “the canopy” — the coverage plants occupy when being cultivated. The recommended tax would be $15 per square foot of canopy space and could be amended not to exceed $25 per square foot.

Meanwhile, Richmond has lifted its ban on commercial cannabis grows, and the Fullterton City Council unanimously agreed to wait until after the November election to make a decision on permitting the cultivation of medical marijuana within city limits. Costa Mesa has on its November ballot two measures that include the regulation of medical marijuana dispensaries and the permitting of cultivation facilities. Also in Laguna Beach, voters will decide whether to allow dispensaries.

San Diego took a more enlightened view by moving to tax recreational marijuana at 8% should the pending November ballot measure pass, but not tax medical marijuana in the meantime. Hayward is looking to follow suit.

A bill to impose a retail tax on medical marijuana at the state level, SB 987 (McGuire) has stalled in committee but a measure to tax cultivation of medical marijuana plants, AB 2243 (Wood) is still in play. Cal NORML opposes both bills.

Scrutiny increased on Placer county after officials released a video describing their process.

-Ellen Komp, Ca NORML

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