Board mulls background checks for cannabis growers

The Calaveras County Board of Supervisors are Gary Tofanelli, left, Jack Garamendi, Merita Callaway, Dennis Mills and Ben Stopper.

The Calaveras County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday took the first glimpses at a draft ordinance to require employer and employee background checks for commercial cannabis cultivation operations. An ordinance to legalize commercial growing is scheduled to be reviewed by the Calaveras County Planning Commission on Aug. 22.

At an April 16 study session, supervisors directed staff to bring forward a separate background check ordinance as a companion to the commercial cannabis cultivation ordinance after hearing recommendations from Sheriff Rick DiBasilio.

Under the proposed ordinance, an employer would receive a Commercial Cannabis Clearance Badge from the county after passing a background check. That would also apply to employees working on cannabis grow sites, but the business owner would likely take on the burden of employee screening, based on discussions among staff and supervisors. An employer could be cited and have his or her license revoked if a worker is identified as not having a badge issued by authorities on a grow site.

The badges would be property of the county, and would certify workers to work on multiple grow sites, based on discussions.

State cannabis licensure programs are deficient in ensuring public safety, as their background checks only screen for criminal history of violent and serious felonies, DiBasilio told supervisors. Jurisdictions in other states, for instance, may have looser laws for defining a violent felony that would permit past offenders to work on a cannabis grow.

Thus, the local review encompasses “a broader category of individuals than is required by the (state), has a much more extensive list of convictions that will presumptively disqualify commercial cannabis applicants and contemplates a much more in-depth review of the prior conduct of owners and workers,” the agenda item reads.

The county would examine an application submitted to the sheriff and the applicant’s criminal history reports from the California Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

For applicants with prior convictions or inaccuracies in their applications that could be “substantially related to the qualifications, functions or duties of the business,” the county would investigate them further before approving an application.

The base application fee for a badge was proposed as $283 for a “tier 1” background check, but in instances that the sheriff deems a more thorough investigation is necessary (a “tier 2” background check), applicants would be charged an additional $358. Appeal fees for a denial or revocation of a badge would cost $1,331.

Responding to perceptions that background checks would be an unfair burden to levy onto cannabis businesses, DiBasilio said at the meeting, “My job is to keep the community safe, and I’m going to do what I believe is lawfully reasonable. If it’s a cost to these folks, it’s a cost … There are processes to get these people certified through the county through background checks before they start growing. If there’s a backlog, that’s part of being in business.”

While tomato, avocado and olive orchard growers don’t have to undergo background checks, “those entities don’t have a black market feel to them like this cannabis industry still does,” DiBasilio added.

District 3 Supervisor Merita Callaway was concerned that the list of disqualifying convictions included in the ordinance would limit the ability of prior offenders in the rehabilitation process to work on a grow site.

“What happened to … trying to get people back into society (to) become taxpayers?” Callaway asked.

Under the ordinance, applicants with certain felony and misdemeanor convictions would be ineligible until 10 years after they were convicted of the crime.

Some of the numerous penal codes listed include felony and misdemeanor convictions of littering; fraud, deceit, money laundering and embezzlement; illegal drug trafficking and cultivation; and being under the influence of a controlled substance or a narcotic drug.

DiBasilio said that he and District Attorney Barbara Yook came up with the various penal codes in the draft ordinance, and restated that they were necessary to keep the public safe.

“I do have a problem with creating something that I think is overkill on behalf of Calaveras County,” Callaway said. “Maybe we’ll just agree to disagree.”

District 4 Supervisor Dennis Mills said he agreed with the sheriff’s recommendations, citing the risk reduction measures necessary to weed out “people that have a propensity to commit.”

Another disagreement arose over the age limit for workers on a grow site. State regulations mandate employees to be 21, but District 2 Supervisor Jack Garamendi argued that the age limit should be 18.

“We need people to work – we can’t have people spinning wheels for three years before they turn 21,” he said.

During public comment, a spectrum of opinions surfaced among formerly registered and prospective cannabis farmers, pro-ban advocates and other members of the public. That said, there was little resistance toward background checks, but more so toward the conditions of the screening procedures.

Formerly registered grower Beth Wittke asked the board whether visitors would have to wear badges when on cannabis grow sites.

“Many (Butte Fire victims) are trying to repair and rebuild properties,” she said. “Does this badge system apply to people working on your property?”

The board later entertained a broader discussion on ensuring that businesses have temporary badges for visitors for agri-tourism purposes as well.

Outspoken ban proponent Bill McManus said the county should defer to the sheriff on what penal codes should be included in the ordinance, and that mechanisms should be put in place to ensure that workers aren’t able to get away with illegally selling badges.

Taxpayers Association President Al Segalla questioned whether the background checks would infringe upon the rights of prior offenders.

“Do people that go to jail for a crime then get out of jail, do they have less rights than other people have? We’re suggesting here that they do not have those rights,” Segalla said.

He also suggested that the ordinance include a “sunset clause” to expire the ordinance in five years unless there is a need to continue it.

The board decided that Mills and District 5 Supervisor Ben Stopper will participate with county staff in determining what changes should be made to the draft ordinance before bringing it back for further review. Callaway will serve as an alternate if one of the two aren’t available.

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Reporter

Davis graduated from UC Santa Cruz with a degree in Environmental Studies. He covers environmental issues, agriculture, fire and local government. Davis spends his free time playing guitar and hiking with his dog, Penny.

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