The chamber was standing room only for Tuesday’s Calaveras County Board of Supervisors meeting and most people in the crowd showed up for one reason: the issue of medical marijuana.
District 4 Supervisor and board Chairwoman Debbie Ponte did her best to set the tone for the topic before the presentation even began.
“This is not a discussion on the pros and cons of marijuana,” Ponte told the crowd. “This is on land use and that is the kind of comment we will take on the agenda item.”
The agenda item was a two-part action brought by the county’s Planning Department involving the rezone of a commercial property in Arnold along with an administrative use permit for Little Trees Wellness Collective.
The medical cannabis collective opened its doors last summer, though not in an area that was properly zoned for distributing medical marijuana. According to the county ordinance on dispensaries, they can only operate in areas designated CP, or professional office. The shop is in an area zoned general commercial.
Little Trees – along with four other dispensaries – received a letter from the county in October, 2013, demanding it take steps to come into compliance or face legal action.
“After we were contacted by them, we immediately began work on our application,” said Jeremy Carlson, owner of Little Trees.
As part of the application, the property owner who leased the space to Little Trees had to be willing to rezone the property.
“The current occupancy rates in Arnold are desperately low,” said John Piel, managing partner of the owners group. “New tenants are few and far between. When the Little Trees Collective approached us, we saw the opportunity.”
In addition to the rezone, the collective also needed to obtain the necessary permit from the county.
Little Trees came before the Calaveras County Planning Commission at the end of February as part of its effort to come into compliance with county code. After a lengthy debate from both sides of the issue, the commission voted to recommend approval for the rezone, but it did not make a decision on the AUP. Two motions to do so died for lack of a second.
That same debate arose at the Tuesday’s board meeting, and similar to the commission meeting, the opposition was again led by Arnold resident George Farley.
“How has Little Trees been given special treatment by allowing them to operate illegally?” he asked the board, unhappy that the business has been operating out of compliance since last summer. “This is not equal treatment and it is not fair to all the other businesses that have gone through the legal process.”
The Planning Department, however, pointed out that this is not an unusual occurrence, regardless of the nature of a business.
“We don’t believe there is different treatment here,” said Planning Director Peter Maurer. “When we get any kind of zoning complaint, we will investigate it. If we find they’re not in compliance, we will notify the operator of the business and say, ‘You need to get these kinds of permits.’”
“Typically, as long as they are working toward getting those permits, we will not have formal action,” Maurer continued. “(Little Trees) did eventually apply for the appropriate application. It is unfortunate that this business operator decided to open first and then find out what the rules are. We’d much prefer they operate within the constraints of our county code, but they have worked within the process.”
Many opponents of the nonprofit business remained unconvinced, touting the perceived dangers of a marijuana shop in the community.
“We all know that illicit drugs are the scourge of our society,” said an Arnold resident, who retired to the area about seven years ago. “Why should we as a county be approving the use of illicit drugs when they’re not even FDA approved? … Don’t be deceived into thinking a pot shop in Arnold is only to serve medical needs.”
On the other side of the debate were proponents of medicinal marijuana, who spoke out in staunch support of Little Trees. Among them were two military veterans, in addition to patients who find relief by using medicinal marijuana.
“This is the absolute most safe way to receive my meds,” said Danielle Williams, a young woman who’s been battling medical issues for years. “I’ve been in the hospital over 200 times. … Instead of relying on narcotics, marijuana keeps me (going).”
In 1996, California passed Proposition 215, known as the Compassionate Care Act, which legalized cannabis for medicinal purposes. Since that time, other states have followed suit and two – Colorado and Washington – have gone so far as to legalize it recreationally.
“Their product is legal, so we’re not talking about doing something illegal or immoral as far as that goes,” said Al Segalla, president of the Calaveras County Taxpayers Association, who was more concerned with what he saw as a laborious permitting process in the county. “I hope, looking ahead, we’ll be able to go into a new age of reducing the amount of regulation of businesspeople in our county. Therefore, we recommend you approve this.”
Members of the board were also in support of approving the action brought by the Planning Department, particularly on the rezone, which received unanimous support from the supervisors.
“The property owner wishes to do that,” said District 1 Supervisor Cliff Edson. “I’m not going to go against what a property owner wishes to do with their property if it’s legal.”
The issue of the AUP also received the support of the board, with the exception of District 5 Supervisor Darren Spellman, who was unhappy the business has been operating without compliance to county code.
“I don’t agree with people just forging ahead and doing whatever the hell they want to do with no regard for the laws that are in place currently,” Spellman said. “Coming (to the board) after the fact is a complete mockery of the system that exists and the people of this county.”
His fellow supervisors disagreed, however, some citing the procedures and processes of the county’s Planning Department and Code Compliance.
“We have businesses in this county that are not legal,” said District 3 Supervisor Merita Callaway. “Two of them are huge businesses in this county that bring in a lot of revenue in terms of tourism and so forth. And there are mitigations they have to complete, which they haven’t done. One of the businesses, it’s been close to 10 years we’ve been working on it.”
For others, the question of medical marijuana was a non-issue.
“For me, this is a no-brainer,” said District 2 Supervisor Chris Wright, citing the larger trends of marijuana in the country and the failed War on Drugs. “This is about freedom to access your choice to have medication. I think that we should be approving this.”
“The laws are changing,” said Edson, referencing the evolving state and federal laws. “So it’s kind of like hitting a moving target. … I would not be a person that would like to make a decision on how somebody regulates their pain until their last living day.”
Ponte, who also works with senior citizens, cited them in her statement, in addition to the young lady’s medical battle.
“Probably the one thing that reinforced how I feel is the young lady who spoke about her surgeries and the safe place she has to go to get her medication,” she said. “I think we need that. … I have many seniors who utilize medical marijuana to take care of their pain control. I’ve seen it work for people when nothing else has.”
After passing the rezone with a unanimous vote, Spellman made a motion to deny the AUP, which died for a lack of second.
Wright followed that with a vote to approve, which passed on a 4-1 vote.