Citing Trump uncertainty, Sacramento County looks to take cautious approach to permitting recreational marijuana

Zoning proposal draws mixed reaction from marijuana industry

New regulations propose taking a cautious approach to allowing recreational marijuana in the unincorporated county.

New regulations propose taking a cautious approach to allowing recreational marijuana in the unincorporated county.

Illustration by Margaret Larkin

Sacramento County planners took a cautious approach to regulating recreational cannabis in their recommendation to the Board of Supervisors last week.

The Planning and Design Commission voted unanimously—with the exception of Commissioner Teresa Stanley, who was absent—last Monday to recommend that the Board of Supervisors amend the county’s zoning code on April 11. The code change would bring the county in line with California’s Proposition 64, approved by voters last November. The new recommendations would essentially apply the current medical cannabis rules in the unincorporated county to recreational cannabis use.

But the regs, if adopted, would fall short of welcoming a recreational marijuana economy.

Legally, the rules would protect cannabis users to a large degree, but remain an obstacle to those in the cannabis industry hoping to expand business operations outside of Sacramento’s city limits.

“It’s really a continuation or status quo of current regulations regarding medical marijuana businesses,” said county Principal Planner Chris Pahule. “This is just a continuation of those policies to bring us in line with Proposition 64.”

While the county looks to maintain the status quo, the city of Sacramento is taking an opposite stance. Earlier this week, on April 3, the city officially began accepting applications for cannabis cultivation, and is in the process of developing ordinances for manufacturing and testing laboratories.

Commercial medical cannabis operations have been officially regulated in the city of Sacramento since 2010, though all commercial medical cannabis operations—dispensaries, deliveries and cultivation—are banned in the unincorporated county.

The recommended zoning amendment that supervisors will consider would also prohibit commercial recreational cannabis operations in the unincorporated county, while adding an allowance for growing up to nine plants indoors for personal use—three more than the base allowance under Prop. 64.

The fact that local jurisdictions are able to decide what to allow under Prop. 64 will continue to be an industry hurdle. Such a patchwork already exists with the state’s allowance of medical marijuana. For instance, in Rancho Cordova, all outdoor cultivation is prohibited, while limited indoor cultivation is permitted in single-family homes and only if applicants can afford prohibitive fees. Elk Grove prohibits dispensaries, not cultivation, while Folsom and Galt ban cultivation of any kind.

The inconsistency of local laws and the uncertainty over how the Trump administration and Attorney General Jeff Sessions will enforce federal marijuana restrictions in states that have legalized it was cited as a factor in taking a more cautious approach at the county level.

During last week’s meeting, commissioners heard from cannabis industry workers, medical cannabis patients, environmental regulators and law enforcement.

District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert advised against the zoning code expansion. Schubert explained that, while she supports medical cannabis, she does not want to see protections for recreational cannabis users. Schubert cited concern from the sheriff’s department over increased emergency room visits and DUIs where drivers tested positive for THC—one of many active compounds in cannabis—as reasons for her opposition to the amendment. Schubert cited examples in states that have legalized recreational cannabis in her argument.

“In the city of Denver alone, the district attorney there reported that crime was up 44 percent” since Colorado legalized recreational cannabis in 2012, Schubert told commissioners. “In 2015 … crime had gone up in every Denver neighborhood. … In Colorado, they have twice as many pot shops as they have Starbucks, so it becomes somewhat of a blight on the community. In terms of the resources that it’s imposing on law enforcement, in Denver they’ve seen a 900 percent increase in unlawful cultivations.”

Schubert’s claims about Colorado’s crime increase are confirmed by the city of Denver’s website. A Denver police spokesman told The Denver Post that it wasn’t clear whether the increase was directly related to legal cannabis. The other claims Schubert made came from a letter sent by former Colorado District Attorney Mitchell Morrissey to the No on Prop. 64 campaign.

Following public comment, the commission voted unanimously to recommend the county zoning code be amended. If approved this month by the board of supervisors, the new amendment would “prohibit all commercial marijuana business and activities, and includes provisions allowing for the cultivation of marijuana plants for personal use consistent with the Adult Use of Marijuana Act,” according to a release from the county.

The commission’s recommendation drew mixed reactions from cannabis industry workers in attendance, such as Anthony Vasquez, director of 515 Broadway Collective.

“I think overall they’re supportive of medical marijuana, but they’re just not quite there [with recreational],” Vasquez told SN&R. “Already they have stringent guidelines for cultivation. … Just the hopes of any activity, any future in the county [for commercial cannabis] kind of has been sidelined for awhile.”

Kimberley Cargile, CEO of A Therapeutic Alternative, was more optimistic in her assessment. “[This is] an ordinance that’s allowing recreational users to have more than [the minimum] the state law has established at six plants, so actually it was very favorable to recreational users,” Cargile said. “As well as the fact they acknowledged the need for safe access … this was a huge win in Sacramento County.”