Potential marijuana initiative has counties working on regulatory framework

Dozens of cannabis plants sit underneath dim green lights at a growing operation in the mountains surrounding Soquel, Calif., in 2014.
Dozens of cannabis plants sit underneath dim green lights at a growing operation in the mountains surrounding Soquel, Calif., in 2014. MCT

In California, counties are planning for the possibility that adult recreational use of marijuana could be legalized. Polls suggest that a measure to legalize pot would stand a chance if it’s on the statewide ballot in November 2016.

The north coast counties, where cultivation has thrived on the fringes of the law, have a keen perspective and held a summit in March to discuss what they see as the problems and opportunities of a regulated commercial pot market. What emerged from the Santa Rosa summit was a unified policy statement on local control, revenue and taxes, environmental regulation and economics.

Those counties – Humboldt, Del Norte, Lake, Mendocino, Sonoma and Trinity – want authority to issue licenses for dispensaries, impose taxes on commercial marijuana, enact land-use policies and place restrictions on cultivation and distribution. They are asking Stanislaus and other counties to support their statement calling for local controls.

Stanislaus Supervisor Vito Chiesa said they raised some important concerns, but he does not see our county supporting the statement. Chiesa is president of the California State Association of Counties, which has a group working on a parallel track to shape state legislation if voters legalize pot.

Chiesa said many issues need to be sorted out, such as zoning, licensing of dispensaries, enforcement and environmental regulation. It’s not known whether the Sheriff’s Department or perhaps the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control would oversee dispensaries to make sure they’re not selling to minors.

County excise or sales taxes on marijuana are possible ways to recover costs of enforcement and regulation.

“We don’t want to end up with 100 dispensaries in one county,” Chiesa said. The CSAC group “is looking into what is happening in Colorado and other states.”

Some counties want to see guidance that clearly spells out the roles of local and state government. According to the north coast counties, the state should consider local input before creating the rules for licensing and taxation and setting standards for cultivation, distribution and consumer protection.

“Counties must have the option to impose fees and fines to recover direct costs of local regulation and code enforcement with respect to all aspects of marijuana cultivation, sales and distribution,” their statement says.

Those counties also want the right to adopt excise and sales taxes to recoup their expenses, but said the black market could be perpetuated if the state and local taxes on marijuana are set too high.

Similar to anti-tobacco education, the counties want the state to allocate funds for research, education and prevention programs focused on young people to “mitigate marijuana abuse and dependence.”

Their statement adds that chain-of-custody certification is needed for branding of regional strains of pot, sustainable practices and responsible processing. It suggests that “certification will increase value to local producers and encourage consumers to make responsible purchasing decisions.”

Humboldt and Mendocino counties deal with environmental problems created by growers who divert water and spray pesticides. Chiesa said he does not know if those problems would emerge in Stanislaus County. It is hard to predict the local outcomes of legalization.

Counties, of course, won’t have to bother if the potential measure is defeated.

Chiesa said he supports compassionate use of medical cannabis but has not heard rejoicing from officials in Colorado about marijuana revenue or any programs being created. Colorado voters approved a constitutional amendment legalizing pot in 2012.

“We deal with the negative effects at the county level,” Chiesa said.

Negative bailout

An attempt to correct a “negative bailout” that’s robbed Stanislaus County of $70 million in tax revenue over the decades was inserted in a state budget trailer bill that is unpopular with cities, county officials said. The bill faces opposition from the League of California Cities because it contains an item that furthers the demise of redevelopment.

At the urging of state and county elected officials from our region, Gov. Jerry Brown included a fix for the negative bailout in the May revision of his budget proposal. It would stop the diversion of $2 million in annual revenue from Stanislaus County, which got a raw deal from a state formula intended to help counties that lost revenue to Proposition 13 in 1978.

Instead of a bailout, Stanislaus and five other counties were forced to sacrifice even more revenue.

The fix needs to survive the budget process and be included in the state spending plan that’s signed by the governor.

Ken Carlson: (209) 578-2321