Pubdate: Tue, 24 Mar 2015
Source: San Jose Mercury News (CA)
Copyright: 2015 San Jose Mercury News
Author: Samantha Clark


Commercial Growth Faces Ban; Dispensary Tax Increase Possible

SANTA CRUZ - Local pot proponents are shocked that growing commercial 
cannabis could soon be banned in unincorporated Santa Cruz County and 
that dispensaries could face a business tax increase. County staff is 
recommending to the Board of Supervisors that only limited indoor 
personal grows for qualifying patients be permitted.

Tuesday, the supervisors are set to take up changing or even throwing 
out the ordinance governing commercial pot cultivation, which was 
passed in February 2014, granting limited immunity to dispensaries 
growing medical marijuana for patient needs.

"There's no shame in acknowledging that we tried something new that 
didn't work, but now we have a responsibility to take the lessons 
learned to actually fix it," said Supervisor Zach Friend.

With the likely legalization of recreational marijuana in 2016, the 
county fears its reputation as a permissive place to cultivate will 
exacerbate current problems by attracting even more guerrilla growers 
than it already has, unless policies that make enforcing grows more 
manageable are put in place.

The supervisors in November asked county counsel to rewrite the 
rules, prompted by a deluge of complaints about marijuana grows 
diminishing quality of life in neighborhoods and degrading the 
environment, from clearing forests and applying pesticides, to 
siphoning water from parched creeks.

"The county is trying to severely restrict commercial cannabis 
cultivation," said Supervisor Ryan Coonerty. "The question is, do we 
ban it entirely or severely limit it. We're heading in the same 
direction. It's just a matter of how far we go."

The possible recriminalization of commercial grows is sending shock 
waves through the vibrant cannabis community, though it's just one of 
the two proposals from county counsel, the Planning Department, the 
Sheriff's Office and the chief administrative officer. The other 
would link dispensaries to a maximum of three cultivators growing on 
limited sites, which is more aligned with previous discussions.

"Everyone is completely outraged right now," said Colin Disheroon, 
who is a co-founder of local industry group the Association for 
Standardized Cannabis and operator of Santa Cruz Mountain Naturals. 
"We're totally surprised. We've been under the impression that the 
new rules would allow dispensaries to have cultivation sites."

Marijuana advocates point to a few bad apples that are causing the 
problems, but the number of known illegal grow sites has climbed from 
84 in September to 139 currently, based on photographic evidence and 
calls from the public, according to officials.

"My clients expect and want regulations and taxation, and they expect 
the county to go shut down the people who are creating the problems," 
said attorney Ben Rice, who represents many in the marijuana 
community and has been working with the county on a number of pot issues.

Dispensaries and collectives are now wondering where they will get 
the medicine, Rice said.

But Friend said he doesn't think a ban will suppress supply.

"No one can credibly argue that it was hard to find medical cannabis 
in Santa Cruz County in advance of our recent cultivation ordinance," 
Friend said, "so I think it would be tough to credibly argue that by 
going back to those previous standards, we will be negatively 
impacting safe access."

Medical marijuana advocates also worry about stunting innovation in 
the growing industry. Strain biodiversity is increasingly recognized 
as important for helping various illnesses, and medical marijuana 
continues to gain scientific legitimacy. "Clean green" selections are 
clearly marked at Santa Cruz Mountain Naturals store in Rio Del Mar. 
With that, there's a need to form standards for cultivation 
practices, said Ian Rice, co-founder of the locally based SC Labs, 
which tests medical marijuana from all over the state for quality control.

"We see probably every single week a least a new type of cannabis 
product or strain or different offering for patients come through our 
doors," Rice said. "Some of these have the potential to be lifesaving 
or at least will help alleviate someone's great pain or issue."

The growing number of illegal grow sites has resulted in an 
increasing need for enforcement, in addition to the two new deputies 
and code compliance investigator approved in January. To help pay for 
the associated costs, the county is suggesting that supervisors 
consider raising the 7 percent cannabis business tax on dispensary 
revenue, which is estimated to bring in $ 1 million annually.

Talk of a tax hike is brewing feelings of mistrust among pot 
advocates who pushed for the measure voters approved in November.

"It's a slap in the face," said Disheroon, who supported the tax. 
"Raising the tax is a recipe for disaster. It would increase 
dispensary and patients' cost while limiting supply."

He said that the other ordinance proposal, which county staff does 
not recommend, is more reasonable. It would allow each dispensary to 
grow itself or contract up to three cultivation businesses in sites 
that don't exceed 10,000 square feet. This would permit just under 3 
aces of total commercial grow space countywide.

No longer is the county proposing to restrict cultivation to certain 
zones, which would outlaw established sites already following the law 
and not causing problems. Coonerty, however, wants to continue 
exploring the option.

"I think we can get commercial cultivation out of the residential 
areas and into limited agriculturally zoned areas," he said. "This is 
something the county deals with all the time, trying to put 
appropriate uses in the appropriate places while trying to reduce the 
impact on neighbors. I think there's a way we can do it for marijuana 
as we look at likely legalization."

For one Summit- area resident, illegal guerrilla growers have invaded 
his street.

"In 2008, there were only three pot growers within a mile of us. Now 
there are dozens and dozens of them," he said, wanting to remain 
anonymous for safety reasons. "We have security systems and cameras 
because we fear for our lives."

Neighboring cultivation sites cause fires, poison pets and wildlife, 
and invite unsavory traffic around the rural neighborhood, pushing 
him to work with local officials.

"I'm tired of coming home from work and seeing my wife standing on 
the front porch crying," he said. "People who think these are a bunch 
of old hippies growing pot are kidding themselves. I'm for the most 
restrictive rules, but they will be hard to enforce."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom