Grower selling marijuana
Grower Anthony Nguyen sells marijuana at the medical marijuana farmers market at the California Heritage Market in Los Angeles. The city has established a regulations framework, however the County of Los Angeles still prohibits commercial marijuana businesses in unincorporated areas. A dozen cities within Riverside County have already implemented — or are preparing to implement — regulations. REUTERS/David McNew

The Board of Supervisors Tuesday decided against abandoning the process of establishing regulations to control commercial marijuana activity in unincorporated areas of Riverside County but did not make any formal decisions about the breadth of the regulatory framework.

“Moving forward does not guarantee anything,” board Chairman Chuck Washington said ahead of the 4-1 vote. “Regarding the shape of the regulatory scheme — there may be things we can’t agree on, and that would end the process. Regulation is something I believe my constituents want.”

The board heard from more than 40 speakers over two hours about the various proposals introduced by the Department of Planning as to what provisions cannabis ordinances should contain. Virtually all of the speakers spoke in favor of the county relaxing current prohibitions and opening unincorporated communities to large-scale marijuana farming, small-scale outdoor grows, storefront dispensaries and other opportunities.

“You close down one dispensary and another one is going to pop up,” said county resident Rodney Topkov. “Look at Santa Barbara and Humboldt counties. They have good frameworks. Give everybody an equal playing field. Don’t sanction out marijuana businesses.”

Riverside County Democratic Party Chairman Steve Ruth told the board that “safe and reliable access to marijuana” should not even be questioned following voters’ approval of Proposition 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, in November 2016.

“Marijuana businesses offer a new source of revenue for schools, roads, health centers,” Ruth said.

Ben Clymer, a repair shop owner from Corona, urged the board to adopt regulations that don’t “drive marijuana businesses into the black market.”

The principal reason for the special afternoon session was for the board to give the Department of Planning direction on what key provisions to include in prospective regulations. There was also a proposal to abandon the effort completely, leaving open the possibility of a ballot initiative sponsored by cannabis industry heavyweights.

Issues raised by planning officials included whether to restrict outdoor grows to a specific size; how much of a buffer to place between grows and dispensaries and schools and parks; whether incentives should be offered to “microbusinesses” interested in commercial marijuana cultivation; what security measures should be required at cannabis stores; and whether restrictions should be imposed on electricity and water consumption.

Planning officials tentatively recommended capping the number of permits issued for dispensaries at 19 and the number of commercial grows at 50 in the unincorporated communities. However, after several speakers complained that the figures were unrealistic given that illicit grows and dispensaries now number 300 or more in just one supervisorial district, the idea seemed to lose support.

Supervisor Marion Ashley cast the sole dissenting vote on the issue of drafting a regulatory framework, reiterating some of the same concerns he expressed during the last board hearing on regulating commercial activity in August.

“I think society is going down the wrong road,” Ashley said. “I voted against (Prop 64), but people voted for it. The bureaucracy built for regulation, we won’t be able to pay for that with a tax. So we’re left with a Hobson’s choice here. We can’t win either way. I think it’s the wrong thing to do. No matter which way we go, there’s no best way.”

Supervisor John Tavaglione was initially on the fence but was persuaded by his colleagues’ comments in favor of pursuing regulation.

Supervisor Kevin Jeffries expressed distaste for anything to do with public use and sales of marijuana, but acknowledged that “the voters have spoken,” so the logical approach would be creation of a regulatory scheme.

Supervisor V. Manuel Perez stood on the side of regulation and suggested cannabis farming would fit in with the general agricultural character of portions of his district in the Coachella and Palo Verde valleys.

The board voted 3-2 — with Jeffries and Tavaglione opposed — in favor of establishing future development agreements with individual growers. The other option would be to tax all commercial marijuana activity, which Jeffries wanted voters countywide to decide. The cost of placing the matter on the ballot would be $750,000, according to the Officer of the Registrar of Voters.

The drafting process will unfold during future hearings before the county planning commission.

According to the Office of County Counsel, a dozen cities within Riverside County have already implemented — or are preparing to implement — regulations permitting the cultivation and trade of medicinal and recreational marijuana. Cathedral City is one of the most active municipalities issuing permits.

Existing county prohibitions against commercial cannabis cultivation and sales include a ban on all types of dispensaries — mobile and stationary — but permitting medical marijuana patients and their caregivers to cultivate up to 24 cannabis plants on private property.

Under Prop 64, individuals who are at least 21 years old may grow up to six plants for personal use in a private dwelling, though any type of commercial-level indoor or outdoor cultivation is strictly outlawed.

While commercial marijuana grows and sales are now permitted statewide, localities continue to have authority to regulate the activity — up to and including blanket bans.

Tentative estimates put county revenue generation from cannabis taxation at between $10 million and $25 million annually.

–City News Service

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