The issue that won’t go away

Supervisors again struggle with marijuana laws

The members of the Butte County Board of Supervisors are tired of talking about medical marijuana. It’s the issue that won’t go away.

Now, five years after they began trying to come up with an ordinance acceptable to all stakeholders—five years filled with numerous noisily contentious hearings and competing ordinances and ballot measures—they’re no closer to clarity.

Their weariness was evident at the beginning of yet another marijuana-related discussion at their meeting Tuesday (Sept. 27). “We should try to get along and politely debate after the [staff] presentation,” board Chairman Bill Connelly implored, sounding as if another nasty free-for-all was more than he could take.

Fortunately for him, the discussion was educational only; no action was to be taken, so no fighting was called for.

The discussion centered around a report prepared mostly by Casey Hatcher, of the administration staff, with the participation of numerous department heads. It was prepared in response to an earlier request by the board for an analysis of the potential impact of two marijuana-related items on the Nov. 8 ballot.

One was state Proposition 64, which would legalize adult use, sales and cultivation of recreational pot. The other was Measure L, a local initiative sponsored by a coalition of medi-pot patients and growers led by the Inland Cannabis Farmers’ Association. In June, the group submitted more than 10,000 signatures to qualify the measure for the ballot.

Hatcher’s very thorough 25-page report tried to answer three questions: What if only Prop. 64 passes? What if only Measure L passes? And what if both pass?

Prop. 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, is structurally similar to the current ordinance governing medical marijuana in Butte County, Hatcher explained. Its most significant provision would extend the right to grow and use pot now available only to medical-marijuana patients to all adults. They would be allowed to possess up to an ounce of the herb and cultivate as many as six plants for personal use.

The county could require that these plants be grown indoors or in locked outdoor buildings. It also would be able to restrict or prohibit commercial pot businesses such as dispensaries, and it would be allowed to tax those enterprises it permitted.

Chief Administrative Officer Paul Hahn assured the supervisors that “a great deal of local control is still in your hands” under Prop. 64. However, they will have to deal with the matter of the six-plant exemption, inasmuch as the current ordinance doesn’t allow indoor grows or grows on more than 50 square feet on parcels smaller than 5 acres.

Measure L is “a different animal” and “a game changer,” Hahn said. As Hatcher explained, it would permit the commercial growing of medical marijuana in nearly every zone in Butte County, allow up to 100 square feet for individuals’ grows and 500 square feet for up to five patients. No other restrictions would apply for personal cultivation, such as residency, permitted residences with water and wastewater sources, or setbacks and fencing.

County voters would be able to authorize the taxation of licensed commercial pot enterprises and the county could adopt user fees for them. In Colorado, which legalized marijuana in 2013, total tax revenue in FY 2014-15 was $82.1 million.

However, Colorado has found that it has created a “gray market” in which legal and illegal pot are mixed, legally grown pot is sold out of state, and burglaries and robberies of marijuana businesses have increased—though this last assertion is belied by statistics from a March 2016 study by the Colorado Department of Public Safety showing that the number of industry-related burglaries are relatively few, and robberies even rarer.

Measure L’s provisions are also confusing and inconsistent, Hatcher stated. County Counsel Bruce Alpert agreed, stating that it would be “very hard to enforce Measure L. It would create costly litigation on many, many levels with no ending.”

Butte County officials historically have opposed liberalizing marijuana laws, and to some extent the report, as even-handed as it is, reflects that leaning. It should be noted, though, that the officials are in synch with county voters, who approved 2014’s Measure A tightening pot regulations with 60 percent of the vote.

“As long as marijuana is illegal in other states, there will be a black market,” Jessica MacKenzie, executive director of the cannabis farmers’ group, told the board. But that doesn’t mean we should go backward, she added.

In an interview during a break in the meeting, she noted that collectively we’re in the early stages of figuring out how to handle marijuana, but that the movement is steady toward greater acceptance of legalization, regulation and taxation. Financially, socially and morally, it makes sense to stop putting people in prison for marijuana, she said.

Supervisor Larry Wahl wanted the board to go on record immediately in opposition to Measure L. Its authors, he said, “should be ashamed of themselves. It’s not going to work, and it’s going to cost a lot of money.”

Alpert reminded the board that the item hadn’t been agendized. “You can oppose it individually, but not collectively as the board,” he said. The supervisors voted unanimously to add it to an upcoming agenda.

One could almost hear them muttering, “Not again.”