The San Benito County Board of Supervisors held a special meeting in the evening Dec. 9 to discuss the possibility of developing a medical marijuana cultivation ordinance in the unincorporated area of San Benito County, as well as the provisions that a future ordinance should contain.
The meeting, which BenitoLink attended, was primarily held to encourage public discussion on the matter, though local media were not sent an agenda ahead of the meeting, as is common practice. Supervisor Robert Rivas did mention both local media outlets in a Tweet about the meeting he sent three-and-a-half hours prior to the 6 p.m. start time.
After two hours and a number of local citizens and marijuana insiders spoke, the board said its next move would be to have its staff draft a proposed ordinance and present it at a meeting during the first quarter of 2016 to again allow the public to present their views.
At the conclusion of the meeting, Supervisor Margie Barrios commented that it seemed that two-thirds of those who spoke were from outside the county. She said she was disappointed in the low turnout of locals, stating their opinions were important, and questioned the motives of the “outsiders” who spoke to the board.
The “motives” of all who spoke were clearly in favor of marijuana cultivation. Speakers ranged from those who are already in the cultivation business, to political operatives, to individuals suffering from various ailments who gave personal testimonials on the benefits to them of medical marijuana.
Supervisor Jamie De La Cruz asked Barrios if any policies would be drafted as a result of the meeting.
“The expectation today, if I understand it correctly, is to hear the public,” Barrios said. “I don’t believe in one evening we can actually formulate any kind of ordinance, but we certainly want to get information from the public to get ideas to formulate an ordinance moving forward.”
She said San Benito County will have leverage in writing an ordinance.
“There will be state regulations, but we still have the opportunity to create our own ordinance, our own zoning, however we wish to move forward with the ordinance,” Barrios said. “It doesn’t have to follow the state guidelines.”
Lonna Blodgett, president and director of Monterey Bay Alternative Medicine, a dispensary in Del Rey Oaks, thanked the board for its leadership and for recognizing the impending transition for allowing medical cannabis. She said there are 10,000 patients from Monterey to San Benito County that the dispensary serves. She spoke of the personal medical battles of several people and how cannabis helped them.
“I want to thank you for listening to those of us who have remained in the shadow of stigma and misunderstanding, and have come forward to help you recognize the truth,” she said, and then invited the board to come to the dispensary to see its operation.
Robert Blodgett, co-director of the Del Rey Oaks dispensary and a rancher near San Juan Bautista where the medical marijuana is grown for the dispensary, also offered any assistance to the board in its efforts to gather data necessary to draft a future ordinance. He said his growing operation includes greenhouses and open fields.
Supervisor Anthony Botelho asked Blodgett about the regulations he must follow in order to operate as a marijuana grower and to dispense the finished product. Blodgett said the first step was to start a collective in the county with about 100 members in 2010. Everything that was grown was divided between the members, who were all patients. He said the collective now operates the dispensary, which is an LLC non-profit.
De La Cruz asked if the dispensary generated revenue. Blodgett said the entire operation was nonprofit, but said revenue, as well as costs, are generated. Barrios asked Blodgett if the nonprofit has a board, to include an executive director, and if that person is paid. He said that neither he nor Lonna Blodgett have drawn any salaries.
Rivas said he voted against the original ordinance because he was uncertain about moving forward because of state regulations and the potential impact on commercial operations. He asked Blodgett what he thought might be appropriate from the standpoint of cultivation of marijuana regarding specified square footage and differing types of products.
“There has to be an end to all that production, it has to go somewhere in this state,” Blodgett said. “Those bigger groves, I suppose, would go to concentrate makers. There’s only a certain amount of cannabis that will be used medically. From our standpoint, we just need to produce what our patients need. What’s good about this new law is we’ll know where it all is and where it all goes.”
De La Cruz and Botelho discussed if a proposed tax of $9.25 per ounce was going to the state or county. Botelho said it was a state tax, but said it is unclear where the revenue will ultimately be spent.
“What scares me about the state is that they’re good at collecting revenues, but are slow about returning it back to counties,” Botelho said. “Proceeds would be utilized for environmental impacts, and I’d imagine that would include clean-up of illegal operations throughout the state. But it’s not spelled out in the bill.”
De La Cruz said, “My concern is that the state is going to take the money. Over and over they do that to us and I want to make sure that whatever direction we go it has the potential to generate revenue for our community.”
Barrios said to Botelho, who serves on the subcommittee that will ultimately draft a county ordinance concerning medical marijuana, “The state’s going to set the regulation and collect their own licensing, their own taxes, and then the county has the ability to do the same thing above and beyond what the state is doing. They’re going to give us that kind of leverage and flexibility to tax, govern it, and tax it as we please?”
Botelho said she was correct.
Before he spoke extensively about the ongoing legislation and status of the cannabis industry, Sean Donahoe, a lobbyist with Oakland-based Operative Campaigns, presented his credentials to the board. A former political consultant outside the cannabis industry, he is now an advocate for what is being called the “Green Rush.” Though he does advise non-cannabis political clients, he focuses primarily on, “the intersection between politics and the emerging cannabis industry,” according to his website. He said as the senior advisor for the California Growers Association (a trade association for cannabis growers, packagers and dispensaries) he has been involved in legislating cannabis for the past three years.
“What I’ve seen over the last three years is a switch-over in the state capital from not wanting to understand the medical benefits of cannabinoid therapies. But now in Sacramento the dynamics have completely shifted to try to figure out how to implement a system that works,” he said. “We want to incentivize a system that works. Anything that doesn’t encourage people to participate is going to fail. So now that politicians have their names on this they want to make sure their policies don’t fail.”
Barrios asked Donahoe if he was anticipating the legalization of recreational marijuana.
“Absolutely,” Donahoe said. “I’ve run into shady characters and although we’re talking about medical marijuana, it’s the same plant. It doesn’t know the difference between medical and recreational. It’s the human that does the cultivation and distribution. Those folks who aren’t interest in complying with Prop 215 and other guidelines don’t seek out representation.”
Barrios wanted to clarify that though Donahoe was now representing medical marijuana, he would also be involved in its recreational use, which he said he was.
“This is a social and criminal justice issue and the ‘War on Drugs’ is probably not a good public policy,” he said. “I think a majority of Americans now believe that. I strongly anticipate that voters in the states of Arizona, Nevada, California, Arkansas, Maine, Missouri, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan will vote to legalize it.”
Donahoe added for emphasis that Canada, Uruguay, Israel, Jamaica can set up infrastructure to ship internationally.
“And we’re still trying to figure it out at the local level, in spite of the fact that we grow the world’s best cannabis,” he said.
Rivas asked Donahoe the difference between growing marijuana indoors and outdoors.
“For each pound of cannabis that’s cultivated (indoors) there is the equivalent of consuming 200 pounds of coal, in terms of CO2 emissions,” Donahoe said. After covering lighting conditions and other growing practices being used in Colorado, he added, “Outdoors is the best.”
Jeffery Lind, of the Coastal Growers Association, encouraged the board to consider large-scale growing operations that might be able to afford higher overheads, including security.
“In terms of what amount of plants should be cultivated per parcel, I’d encourage you to look at canopy size and not the plants themselves,” he said. “That way you’re consistent with state regulations and it would make it easier for operators and also for the county in terms of definitions and the process itself. I think you’ll find that you have a responsible, professional and mature cannabis community that is hoping to answer your questions.”
Barrios asked Lind’s opinion on what makes up a “cannabis community.”
“There are a number of professional operators who look to the law and go towards government and ask what regulations can be put in place to assure we are doing a legitimate job in serving the community,” he said. “There are qualified patients who are finding medical benefits. There’s an entire industry, from cultivation to manufacturing to distribution. Those all come together and form a community that is doing a lot of work to help sick people and that’s important work that needs to be done.”
When asked by Del La Cruz if he is preparing for the possible passage of recreational-use laws, Lind said he considers recreational and medical uses separate issues. He said the medical benefits need to be preserved and that most of the operators consider the benefits of patience a primary concern.
Botelho said San Benito County is small with very little revenue potential from property taxes, which directly affects services, including law enforcement. He said the ordinance under consideration is strictly for unincorporated areas.
“We have a limited law enforcement abilities in this county to provide protection for those types of operations, as well as neighboring businesses and residences,” he said. “That’s an area we have to be very clear about. It’s pretty high risk, especially with some of the crime elements historically associated with marijuana and other drug activities.”
Lind answered: “I think you’ll find most of those people who wish to operate or cultivate in this county would like to have a close working relationship with law enforcement and have law enforcement comfortable around their operations. And they would also like to provide their own private security. No business, whether it be a bank, pharmacy or cannabis cultivation site is going to benefit from a security threat.”
He told the board that bigger operators would essentially be able to afford more security, adding that the board is welcome to add security regulations in the ordinance to prevent overburdening local law enforcement.
De La Cruz said that if the ordinance goes forward, he wanted to make sure that law enforcement, “gets a lot of money.”
Ian Styles, who described himself as a cannabis representative from Santa Cruz, said that while he appreciates discussions on environmental issues, he is more concerned about “clandestine groves operated by criminals who are using chemicals.”
“Most people worry about smelling it (marijuana), thinking it might make them ill,” he said. “But the thing that can make you ill is the chemicals. We don’t know how much we don’t know. Even our cannabis experts have a lot to learn. What we are finding out is that this is a plant that is beneficial to communities. It’s important that we’re doing this, but let’s not be afraid.”
Sharon Bush and her husband Bill shared their personal stories about their illnesses and how cannabis has helped them function by reducing their pain. Bill Bush said cannabis makes it possible for him to sleep through serious leg pains and questions why doctors continue to administer powerful drugs that have side effects rather than consider cannabis.
Jonathan Kolodinski, of Crème DeCanna, which produces cannabis-based edibles, medicated oil and body lotions, said that since Santa Cruz passed a county tax on cannabis last year, he has paid more than $250,000 in taxes.
“That’s just our dispensary,” he said. “I think the 14 legitimate dispensaries in Santa Cruz have paid close to $1 million in six months. Moving forward in cultivation I don’t think a sales tax will be the model for wholesale distribution. But the permitting fees that are associated to each of the license types is probably going to be your most consistent model. It’s probably going to have to be based on some kind of square footage model, so you cover everything from the small, hobby garden all the way up to a full-scale outdoor operation. My recommendation is to find something that’s reasonable, that can be annually renewed so you can have a consistent annual revenue.”
Kolodinski said this will allow the commercial growers and keep the “compassion act” to let people who need cannabis for medical use.
“People who need it for medicine probably don’t need a lot and 12 plants will be enough,” he said. “The guys who are trying to provide for the whole state are going to need acres of crops and most likely you’re going to see people trying to do that in greenhouses, just like others in the agriculture industry.”
Botelho said he believes the commercial component of the discussion is more complicated than medical marijuana.
“We could be jumping off a cliff if we’re not careful,” he said. “I’m not saying we should rule that out. I would like to see it (commercial growing near San Juan Bautista) under its own form of regulation and oversight on a local level to make sure that their operation is safe. And I don’t want to see a wide open doors for marijuana cultivation in the county. I think we need to have limits put in place to begin with to see how things move forward.
“Because we have limited resources, as far as government services for public safety, we have to take that into account. It sounds like most of the organizations that spoke today support that concept. I think that would be the most prudent way to move forward.”