Board to consider options to expand commercial marijuana market

Humboldt County officials are set to discuss how to expand the local commercial marijuana market including allowing for recreational cannabis businesses.

Planning and Building Director John Ford stated that his department anticipates bringing a revised ordinance to the Board of Supervisors by October or November before the state’s medical and recreational marijuana markets open in January 2018.

“We plan on moving forward with that fairly rapidly,” Ford told the county Planning Commission on Thursday. “One of the important things that we want to do though is to make sure that we capture the elements in the ordinance that we want to tackle and have those agreed upon up front.”

Before the revised ordinance can be approved, the county must conduct a full environmental review of the proposed changes to its existing commercial cannabis rules passed last year.

The Board of Supervisors is set to discuss on Tuesday what changes and additions it would like to include in the review.

In January 2016, the board adopted its commercial medical marijuana land use ordinance, which allows for outdoor and indoor cultivation, manufacturing, transportation, distribution and nursery businesses. The ordinance seeks to bring existing operations into the regulatory fold while also allowing for new cultivation, but only on lands with prime agricultural soils.

Senior Planner Steve Lazar of the county’s Cannabis Services Division stated to the planning commission Thursday that limiting new cultivation to these prime agricultural lands came with “unintended consequences” including spiked land prices, conflicts with local communities like in Fortuna and conflicts with the goals of local land trusts.

One of the changes that will go before the board Tuesday is allowing for new cultivation on other types of agricultural land, which Lazar said was not possible under the original ordinance as the county had not conducted a full environmental review.

“What we’re trying to do is take a different approach than what was put through the [original] ordinance,” Lazar said. “We have a lot of agriculturally zoned parcels in the county, and had we just said that any parcel that was zoned for agriculture can do this, we would have been looking at upwards of 20,000 to 40,000 properties that would qualify.”

Lazar also said another option is to limit new cultivation in certain areas to reduce conflicts such as that which arose in Fortuna. Fortuna residents raised concerns to the county last month after a 50,000 square-foot cultivation site was permitted on Nelson Lane, which they stated was too close to residential neighborhoods.

But because the ordinance incentivises growers to relocate to prime agricultural areas, Planning Commissioner Ben Sheperd urged caution on this option.

“We don’t want to ask people to relocate and not give them anywhere to go,” he said.

The county received more than 2,300 medical cannabis business applications by the Dec. 30, 2016, filing deadline, of which the majority are for existing cultivation. No permit applications are currently being accepted until the environmental impact review is completed. Up to 15,000 marijuana operations are estimated to be in the county, according to a staff report.

“There are far more cultivators in the county than have applied for permits,” Lazar said, “and the only way they’ll come in for a permit is if we are able to revisit the deadline that was included in the original ordinance.”

Other proposed changes reflect updates to current state laws for both medicinal and recreational marijuana. Lazar said one proposed change would be to create new “micro-business” license as is now allowed under the state recreational marijuana use laws, known as the Adult Use of Marijuana Act. Lazar explained that the license would allow for farms with 10,000 square feet or less of cultivation to also have on-site consumption, processing, wholesale and manufacturing.

“Essentially the greatest analog would kind of be the vineyard model where there is both on-site production of wine and a vineyard where the wine and grapes are grown as well as a tasting room,” Lazar said. “It would probably be the cannabis analog to that.”

The county is currently proposing that these micro-businesses be located within 2 miles of a state highway.

Another option is allowing for recreational marijuana businesses to open in the county. Lazar said that recreational marijuana regulations will likely mimic existing medical marijuana rules.

Planning Commissioner Brian Mitchell recommended that the board also consider the topic of cannabis concentrate manufacturing and its location to sensitive areas like neighborhoods.

Even without the expanded ordinance, the county has its work cut out for it.

Only 19 of the 2,300 cannabis business permits have been approved and only 74 of the permit applications are complete and ready to be processed by the county, Ford said.

Ford said they expect to approve five more permits in April and possibly another 10 in May.

Will Houston can be reached at 707-441-0504.

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