The Humboldt-Rio Dell Business Park, once the site of a sawmill industrial site, will now play host to cannabis-related businesses. (Shaun Walker — The Times-Standard)
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As a fledgling cannabis industry enters another year of ironing out its tangles, Humboldt County’s smaller cities along the Eel River have doubled down on their skepticism of what exactly a legal economy would bring to their doorsteps.

One thing’s for sure: commercial cannabis raises difficult questions for any city. As 2019 gets underway, both Fortuna and Ferndale remain coolly opposed to retail dispensaries, while Rio Dell has warmed toward an embrace.

“I think there’s a cautious optimism about developments here in town,” said Rio Dell city manager Kyle Knopp. “There was certainly a lot more doubt early on, but as some of our projects have proceeded to actual physical construction that you can see with your eyes, people realize that this is actually happening.”

The city now allows commercial manufacturing of cannabis on the industrial side of town in the Humboldt-Rio Dell Business Park, formerly the site of a now-defunct sawmill company. In poetic fashion, the decline of the logging industry in Humboldt County is clearing the path for a new flagship local economy.

“When people see that this is a path toward jobs and revenue that can pave the streets and fund the police department, they become more supportive of the process at large,” Knopp said.

Eighty percent of Rio Dell voters supported a city-wide tax on the plant in November 2017, more than a year after the city council had shot down an effort to place commercial cannabis on an election ballot.

Retail dispensaries are still off-limits, but cultivators, manufacturers and testers, among other businesses, have the business park to set up shop. That side of the city is separated by the Eel River, making it quite remote from the more residential areas.

With all of those qualifications in place, Rio Dell residents have come around to the idea of a cannabis business park, especially because of the way things have gone over the past decade, Knopp said.

“Rio Dell has been hit very hard by a couple different factors, including the demise of the timber industry and the 2008 recession,” he said. “What the council has tried to do here is be proactive in taking a leadership stance toward this industry.”

From an economic perspective, it’s worked. The city has collected $70,000 in local tax revenue, while the total assessed property values at the business park have risen by $2.6 million. Meanwhile, the city has incorporated a track-and-trace program to follow the distribution path of the legally sold products.

Criminal concerns

Economic boosts, lucrative as they look, are not a surefire sell for every city. Fortuna officials have heard time and again about the industry’s potential boosts, and they’ve responded by digging their heels deeper into opposition.

In October, the city council unsuccessfully tried to shun a cannabis oil manufacturing facility from the city’s sphere of influence. City officials acted with a great deal of indignance — Councilman Dean Glaser said at a meeting the county was “supporting evil.”

The city’s opposition has support from the majority of its residents, who sided against state Proposition 64, which in 2016 decriminalized cannabis in California.

“People are concerned about the crimes you hear about,” Merritt Perry, Fortuna city manager, said, “like strong-arm robberies at the plants.”

As such, dispensaries are not allowed to distribute to Fortuna residents’ homes, according to the city’s policies. It’s unclear how the ban is enforced and Perry said the city hasn’t received a significant number of real public safety complaints.

When it comes to opposition, the distinction lies in the mind-altering part of the plant, Perry said.

“Maybe in time we’ll see that this industry will end up being respected,” said Perry. “But whether it’s fundamentally or culturally, the council does not want to see a psychoactive drug being distributed to the city.”

Ferndale has joined its Eel River Valley neighbor in banning the plant. Last August, then-Mayor Don Hindley authored a letter formally opposing Proposition 64, echoing many of the safety concerns heard around Fortuna’s city government. He also used talking points provided by the California League of Cities.

“The city believes that cultivation, processing and distribution, such as forced cannabis deliveries, may result in adverse impacts including offensive odors … trespassing thefts, and robbery attempts,” Hindley wrote.

A ‘prohibitionist’ mentality

Between fears of crime, physical safety and the prospect of bad odors, there’s no way cannabis bans have stopped people within city limits from using the product, said Terra Carver, the executive director of the Humboldt County Growers Alliance.

“The difference is, cannabis is not being bought from legal dispensaries, which means it hasn’t been safely tested,” Carver said. “These cities are fueling a public health issue.”

Most municipalities have focused discussion of the plant around its economic impacts. But Carver said centering the talk around money and job growth ignores the darker realities of an unregulated industry, where pesticide-infected product seeps into the black market and workers are abused.

Not all bans are extremist, Carver pointed out — it takes a lot of heavy lifting for city staff to properly regulate cannabis. But a blanket ban on home deliveries? That’s where things fall back on “drug war” rhetoric, she said.

“When cities like Fortuna jump on the ‘reefer madness’ talk,” she said, “it becomes a very abusive, prohibitionist stance.”

The wheels of time are spinning. As both the state and Humboldt County dive deeper into the culture of regulated cannabis, Fortuna holds its ground. But even city officials are now assuming a “wait-and-see” stance, Perry said when asked about a possible end to the ban.

But as long as the wait continues, Carver said, public health and individual safety remain at risk.

“How long is it going to take before elected officials realize they’re propping up an unregulated market? The consequences of prohibition go far beyond just the product. Everything is put at risk.”

Shomik Mukherjee can be reached at 707-441-0504.

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