Cannabis regulations bring heated debate

Community members spoke up in public comment at a meeting on new cannabis regulations.

The Calaveras County Board of Supervisors began reviewing two ordinances and a fee study pertaining to commercial cannabis cultivation in special meetings on Tuesday and Wednesday. The fee study was to support the formation of a cannabis control department, and the two ordinances were cultivation regulations and an associated background check ordinance.

San Andreas Fire Chief Don Young stood at the entrance of board chambers to limit the number of people allowed in the room to the seated section.

Residents held up “Recall Stopper” signs on the right side of the room.

The meeting began with a presentation from Country Administrative Officer Al Alt on the fee study for a proposed cannabis control department.

Housed under the county administrative office, the department would expeditiously facilitate background checks, process applications, and help inspect grow sites. It would serve as the location for prospective growers to file applications, and its staff would help guide individuals through the application process.

Under the fee study, cultivation permits would cost $12,561.78 with annual renewal fees of $2,606.75, a background check fee of $153 and an appeal fee of $947. That’s based on the assumption that the county will process 152 applications for permits (or 80% of 190 formerly registered growers that were in compliance with the county that are likely to apply), Alt said.

He stressed the importance of the department as providing “fiscal oversight and transparency,” adding that revenues and expenditures for the regulatory program could be regularly presented to board members and disseminated to the public.

District 1 Supervisor Gary Tofanelli was concerned that the presentation didn’t clearly display how many new employees would need to be hired for the regulatory program.

Alt said it would take three new employees, including a CAO manager, CAO department analyst and an administrative analyst, and the rest of the work would be taken on by staff from other county departments.

During public comment, ban proponents shared their experiences with illegal cannabis growers, citing several cases of environmental pollution, undesirable odors and criminal behaviors during the Urgency Ordinance period.

Multiple speakers questioned whether Alt and members of the board had been paid off or threatened to push the regulations through.

“This is discrimination. This is biased and this is shameful and this is corrupt and you should all be ashamed of yourself,” one woman told the board.

The next speaker, who identified himself as Jim Latch of Burson told supervisors, “I’d like to know who you’re working for, because you’re not working for me. Nobody pushes this [expletive] through in the rapid way that you’re doing it and gives one crap about the people who work here and live here.”

As District 2 Supervisor Jack Garamendi intervened to tell Latch to refrain from cursing, Latch cut him off with his voice raised, saying, “Listen, you work for me … Who bought you, how much did it cost? Maybe we should open our checkbooks so we can buy you back.”

District 2 resident Terry McBride said legalizing commercial operations would be different from the process in 2016, as it was during a time of “chaos” after the Butte Fire. She said she lived in a trailer in Mountain Ranch surrounded by illegal growers and that she dealt with the criminal element as well.

Legal growers "give to our economy. The illegals do not,” she said. “If done correctly this will pull so many people out of the hole. You’re on the right track.”

Calaveras Cannabis Alliance Executive Director Trevor Wittke said there are two options to solve the problems addressed by many members of the public related to crime and environmental issues: a ban or regulation.

He said the current ban has not reduced the impacts associated with illicit activity. Regulations, however, could establish “a system of taxation and regulation that would create a revenue stream, drive compliance and address issues many brought up associated with (illicit) cultivation,” Wittke said, adding that all of the formerly registered growers currently under consideration for the program had paid their taxes, and would be good actors.

The board eventually voted 3-2 to authorize the formation of the department and direct finalization of the fee study, with Tofanelli and District 4 Supervisor Dennis Mills opposed.

Tofanelli said “there’s still a lot of unknowns that we need to solidify before we create this,” with reference to how many people would need to be hired.

Mills said that a majority of jurisdictions in the state are not using a cannabis department, and “I wonder why we need it.” He added that the department wouldn’t have enough checks and balances, and there could be accountability issues.

District 5 Supervisor Ben Stopper said he was in support, seeing the department as the “vessel” through which fiscal tracking can happen. He said that staff have told him they were in support of such a department as well since there was a lack of organization during the 2016 Urgency Ordinance.

In agreement with Stopper, District 3 Supervisor Merita Callaway said the office would be a “mechanism to track the fiscal impact of the ordinance if this happens.”

Later in the day, Planning Director Peter Maurer introduced the cannabis cultivation regulatory ordinance to the board. He listed the following as the biggest changes from the 2016 regulatory program:

• from 2-acre minimum parcel size to 20-acre minimum parcel size

• setbacks increased from 30 feet to 75 feet (or 150 feet in instances where closer to residential parcels)

• cultivation for medical and adult use both allowed

• outdoor cultivation increased from half an acre to 1 acre, while mixed light and indoor cultivation remains the same

• the number of potential applicants reduced from 765 to 190

• five cultivation areas (premises) allowed on a single parcel.

The board was discussing criteria for permit applicants at 11 a.m. on Wednesday, with several sections of the ordinance left to tackle.

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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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