Supervisors task ad hoc committee to coordinate with city in drafting marijuana cultivation ordinance

Ad hoc committee comes back to supervisor board to ask for clear direction for commercial marijuana cultivation ordinance.

The San Benito County Board of Supervisors recently discussed a proposed marijuana cultivation ordinance by receiving updates from its ad hoc committee, which prepared the agenda item in order to obtain more direction from the board before preparing a draft ordinance. The ad hoc committee would then agendize another meeting to discuss the proposed ordinance before taking it back to the supervisors for approval.

Before the supervisors began discussions on Jan. 26, Barbara Thompson, assistant county counsel, who prepared the agenda item, wanted to clarify some of the terminology regarding the number of plants-per-parcel for personal use. She clarified that the term “personal use” is not to imply that only the parcel owners would be allowed to use the marijuana and that the plants could be used by one or more patients, whether they owned the parcel or not. Likewise, she said of the term “commercial cultivation,” that is to refer to a larger scale of cultivation of many more plants that would be available to many patients or a dispensary.

Supervisor Jaime De La Cruz, a member of the ad hoc committee along with Supervisor Anthony Botelho, said he had recently toured marijuana facilities in San Jose. He thanked Robert Rivas, board chairman, for appointing him to the committee and said it was his understanding that the public would be able to come to the committee to discuss their views. He said that did not happen and he said he was disappointed.

“We’re asking the board for leadership and direction on how to move forward,” De La Cruz told Rivas.

Botelho said there was no longer pressure to write and approve a medical marijuana ordinance regarding cultivation since the extension of the March 1 deadline under Assembly Bill 21. He described the work at hand for the supervisors as a two-pronged effort involving personal use growing and whether or not commercial cultivation will be allowed in San Benito County.

Rivas asked fellow supervisors if they wished to hear further public comments before discussing the four items presented to it by the committee: 1) what should be the number of plants-per-parcel for private or personal growth; 2) should private groves be allowed indoors or outdoors; 3) should commercial cultivation be allowed in the county; 4) if commercial cultivation is allowed in the county should the issues surround personal/commercial cultivation be bifurcated into two separated ordinances.

Opening up to public comments, attorney Aaron Johnson, who spoke at the Jan. 25 Hollister Ciity Council meeting on the same topic, thanked De La Cruz and Botelho for taking the tours in order to appreciate the “agricultural aspect” of cultivation that has been going on for some time under state law. He said he thinks it’s important for the board to understand that people involved legally in the cannabis industry are “God-fearing, law-abiding citizens” who want to be acknowledged as such.

“The tour showed this as an industry that is truly agricultural and if you walked in and didn’t know those were cannabis plants, you could be growing tomatoes in there and it wouldn’t look any different,” Johnson said.

He compared food agricultural practices to cannabis-growing methods that require similar concerns for water treatment and nutrients and how easy the industry can be regulated. He said he personally doesn’t like questions about on plant-count limitations.

“It makes sense in the personal cultivation category because you’re allowed six plants as a card-carrying patient,” John said. “So, when it comes to the personal aspect, I would bifurcate into two different elements.”

Johnson said that under the new state law patients are allowed five care-giving licenses, enabling them to have up to 30 plants under the personal, non-commercial setting.

“I strongly suggest that you do develop commercial cultivation,” he said. “It’s safer for the patients. It’s easier to track the cannabis, the income and the potential tax revenue to the county. There’s a whole economic engine to this industry that should be brought into the light and I encourage you to work on an ordinance that supports that.”

Jeff Lind, an attorney at the same law firm as Johnson, agreed that it would be best to separate personal and commercial cultivation in the ordinance.

“There are several issues at play, certainly patient rights which deal primarily with what patients do with their own personal groves,” Lind said. “Commercial is a separate issue that would involve various land-use regulations and it’s more of a business approach. I’ve seen several very professional operators who take great lengths to have a professional operation that’s forthright and meets all regulations. This is an opportunity to enrich the economy, bring jobs and support the community.”

Hollister resident Mike Smith said he was concerned that the committee take the time to meet with a licensed physician who treats patients who use medical marijuana. He said he thinks the board has most likely already heard the opinions of law enforcement and the district attorney, and he hoped they did not base their opinions solely on their input. He said they need to hear from a physician who has no vested interest on concerns about the efficacy of marijuana.

Ann Ross has adamantly spoken out against marijuana at previous meetings and did so again. She challenged the “so-called experts,” including attorney Johnson, about the benefits of marijuana. She said she did like hearing Smith’s comments about talking to a physician, but she said who the committee really needed to hear from were economists and lawyers who will tell them about the potential problems.

She brought up potential issues of cross-contamination of the soil or the spreading of plants by the wind.

“We’re binging in people to tell us how good it is, but we haven’t brought in experts to tell us how it wouldn’t be,” Ross said. “We should be bringing in those experts to tell us about the problems, from an agricultural standpoint.”

Ross pointed out that the one agency that has consistently pointed out potential problems is the sheriff’s department. She recalled a slide presentation that showed the arsenal of weapons recovered during a raid.

“After seeing that how are we jumping forward to ‘maybe we can sell extra soil?’” she said. “We can sell extra soil when we grow the tomatoes. From a social aspect, it is illegal. From a financial aspect, there’s got to be other ways. Everyone understands we want to grow our economy. Is marijuana what we really want to do?”

Botelho commented that there is no good answer and said the most reasonable approach the issue is to figure out how to manage individual backyard growers or caregivers for personal use and what does the board want the committee to focus on regarding commercial cultivation. He said he has talked to supervisors in other counties who admit they’re just as clueless about commercial cultivation.

“There’s so much happening with the state legislature I would recommend we put some sort of moratorium on additional commercial cultivation operations in our county until this is worked out,” he said. “It’s important to be compassionate. This is a viable medicine. I’m convinced after listening to testimony that it does help people. But even growing it next door I think you have to be cognoscente of your neighbor and their rights.”

He said at the state level there is talk of the Department of Food and Agriculture being the lead agency overseeing medical marijuana, which might mean the agriculture commissioner would have some responsibilities. He said he doesn’t think that issue has been discussed.

“Whatever we come up with regarding regulations for personal use needs to take into account the impacts on adjacent parcels,” Botelho said.

De La Cruz it was because of concerns over “what is a parcel” and “what is the number of plants” was why he and Botelho wanted to bring it back to the board for further guidance. He said the committee could be discussing these issues, but the full board might not be in favor of the direction of the discussions.

“I want to develop a policy that is an evolving concept that will adjust for the changes that will occur in the years to come,” he said.

Rivas said until there is some sort of resolution at the state level the two issues should be separate. He commented that the previous night the city council created a similar ad hoc committee and there is a need for coordination between the city and county committees. He questioned if there is a way to work together to create similar ordinances.

“The commercial cultivation is going to require a lot more research and input from the public, from our staff, the sheriff, the district attorney,” he said.

Supervisor Margie Barrios agreed that it is important to coordinate with the city.

“No matter what we do, it will go against federal law,” she said. “I don’t think that having six out of town people at our last meeting shows strong community support. That is industry that wants to come here, they want to make a buck. Is it agriculture? Absolutely. It’s a plant. But it doesn’t have the benefit except for the people who need it, and I support that. It does not have the same benefit as the vegetables we serve at our table to our children, to our elderly. They’re going to benefit. Are we going to benefit? Probably not.”

She said if someone wants to grow medical marijuana they’re taking a chance in getting into trouble with federal law. She is in favor of prohibiting commercial cultivation and dispensaries in the county.

Supervisor Jerry Muenzer said he supported the original ordinance until he started getting the phone calls from his constituents in “the most conservative district in the county” on the issue of indoor growing as opposed to outdoor growing. He said he does not favor outdoor growing and thinks the board should not be dealing with commercial cultivation until the state decides how it will move forward.

He said he doesn’t want current operations in the county to be penalized now that they have been identified. He also doesn’t want to see an increase in operations until there is an ordinance in place.

Rivas said the direction to the committee should be to coordinate with the city, stating that at the present time the supervisors “have no idea what they are thinking.” He also concurred with the others on the board that personal and commercial cultivation had to be considered separately.

Botelho asked if the committee should come up with a draft ordinance and have a public hearing, then “message it” and bring it back to the board.

“I don’t think any of us desire San Benito County to become the marijuana mecca of California,” he said. “Ideally, we put together a good commercial ordinance that caps the number of operations and encourages good legitimate operators, and have the criteria in place for us to oversee them go forward.”

Botelho said he supports Muenzer’s recommendation for a moratorium.

“I don’t think this is an open door where people can establish greenhouses and defeat our ordinances,” he said.

Barrios questioned whether commercial operations should even be allowed in the county. She said she would vote against any move to allow commercial operations and questioned whether the board should even go through the motions.

Rivas said he’s not ready to ban commercial operations without the necessary research. He said it’s a ‘wait-and-see approach,’ to see what the state does.

“I hate to ban something without knowing fully what’s going to occur,” he said.

John Chadwell

John Chadwell is a freelance photojournalist with additional experience as a copywriter, ghostwriter, scriptwriter, and novelist. He is a former U.S. Navy Combat Photojournalist and is an award-winning writer, having worked for magazine, newspapers, radio and television. He has a BA in Journalism and Mass Communications from Chapman University and graduate studies at USC Cinema School. John worked as a scriptwriting consultant, and his own script, "God's Club," was produced and released in 2016. He has also written eight novels, ranging from science fiction to true crime, which are sold on Amazon. To contact John Chadwell, send an email to: [email protected]