In the latest update on cannabis cultivation regulations currently in the works, the Calaveras County Board of Supervisors in a study session on Tuesday voiced majority approval for establishing a county department of cannabis control. The study session was regarding an ordinance to require background checks for owners of cannabis businesses and their employees.
Introduced by District 5 Supervisor Ben Stopper, the idea of a centralized cannabis department would be to reduce strain on the various county departments involved in regulating production of the crop.
Housed under the county administrative office, the department would expeditiously facilitate background checks, process applications, and help inspect grow sites, Stopper said. It would serve as the location for prospective growers to file applications, and its staff would help guide individuals through the application process, he said.
“If you need a grading permit or let’s say anything to do with the planning department when it comes to zoning or questions that apply, they would direct you to the department that facilitates those services, but they would also be doing the inspections, possibly working with the other departments that apply,” Stopper said.
The board polled 3-2 on directing staff to draft a cannabis department into the background check ordinance, with the two opposing votes from District 4 Supervisor Dennis Mills and District 1 Supervisor Gary Tofanelli.
Tofanelli and Mills said that forming a new department at this point would be putting the cart before the horse.
“The formation of this department is a singular act that will take the expertise of staff to pull that together,” Mills said. “I don’t know where (the ordinance) fits in the realm of a department that we don’t understand what it’s going to be, where it’s going to be, how it’s going to be funded, staffing, any piece of that, so it’s like we’ve got this ambiguous ball we’re looking at here, and we’re trying to shove stuff into it …”
District 2 Supervisor Jack Garamendi argued that “this is a study session to give guidance,” and that the administrative office would figure out the components necessary to create the department and then present its details to the board at a later date.
Supervisors explored the possibility that the number of applications to be processed at one time as originally discussed may be increased from 25, given the formation of the department.
That was a number settled on based on discussions with staff on what would be an appropriate amount with current staff levels in various departments, Stopper said.
There was consensus among supervisors that background checks were necessary.
“Does everybody need to be a saint to work in the garden? Probably not, but we also don’t want them to be an axe murderer,” Garamendi said.
Under the proposed ordinance, an employee or employer would receive a Commercial Cannabis Clearance Badge from the county after passing a background check.
The board voiced approval to go with recommendations made by the sheriff and the district attorney to craft the ordinance’s list of requirements.
Defending the requirements, District Attorney Barbara Yook said at the meeting that two of the “most horrendous” cases where the DA and SO had to intervene during the Urgency Ordinance occurred with legal growers being victims of crimes from outside hires, or “trimmigrants.”
With the proper background checks in place, “things would’ve gone faster, we would’ve been able to pursue more leads, and we would’ve been able to solve the crime faster,” Yook said. “This is not about trying to prevent people from opening businesses, it’s about trying to protect people involved and the public at large.”
Responding to concerns with the list of disqualifying conditions raised by District 3 Supervisor Merita Callaway at the last study session, Stopper said the list would be appropriate given the fact that a determining officer would have the chance to review whether a particular crime would actually merit disqualification from employment on a cannabis grow.
“Someone being disqualified because they sat in at (a protest at) UC Davis and subsequently got convicted of a crime for such is a bit onerous,” Stopper said. “So this gives the determining officer in this situation the opportunity to vet through these and see if the convictions are ... related to the qualifications, functions or duties of an applicant ... So, at that point they can make a dutiful decision as whether they do apply or not. We don’t need to penalize someone for speaking up for themselves … I’m good with a majority of these (disqualifying convictions) with that said.”
Piggybacking off of Stopper’s point, Deputy County Counsel Ethan Turner said that sitting in at a protest is a crime under the same section of Penal Code as trying to wrestle a gun away from a cop. That’s why a conviction under that law was included in the list, he said.
Turner confirmed that the determining officer would have to consider mitigating factors such as the nature and severity of the actions and the time that had elapsed to determine whether the crime should disqualify a prospective cannabis farm employee.
Continuing with that example, the determining officer would likely “not deny the person who was arrested at a sit-in and you would deny the person who was trying to wrestle a firearm away from a cop,” Turner said.
Throughout the meeting, Mills and Tofanelli voiced support for the proposals given by the SO and DA, arguing that they had based the recommendations off of their experiences during the 2016 Urgency Ordinance period.
In a Sept. 18 phone interview following the meeting, Callaway said that although she was in favor of just going with the list of disqualifying convictions under state regulations, “I thought it was a good settlement.”
Regarding the potential formation of a cannabis department, she said she was in favor because it would allow the sheriff to focus on illegal grows and let the cannabis unit focus on the legal registered grows.
The first reading of the background check ordinance will be on Oct. 1. In that hearing, supervisors will also review the companion ordinance detailing the specifics of commercial growing regulations, as adopted by the Planning Commission on Sept. 18.