The fall harvest season has arrived, ripe with apples, pears, grapes and persimmons. For some locals, it’s also a time known as “trim season,” when twentysomethings with flexible work schedules find themselves caravaning up to Humboldt County or neighboring areas for seasonal work on cannabis farms—sometimes earning several thousand dollars in just a few short weeks.
Although it may never quite match those weed meccas of Northern California, Santa Cruz County also looks poised to become fertile ground for cannabis, an industry that could easily continue blossoming here after last year’s passage of Proposition 64 legalized the drug for recreational use—that is, according to a new Santa Cruz County environmental impact report (EIR).
The document examines proposed cultivating and manufacturing regulations for cannabis, and it’s now available for public review. One notable finding is the potential financial stimulus from the growing industry.
The 636-page EIR, compiled by Santa Barbara-based Amec Foster Wheeler, examined the local potential of the recreational cannabis industry, which could bring in billions of dollars in annual tax revenue across the state. Between growing, testing, farming and other fields, the EIR estimates the industry will create 7,100 new full-time jobs here in the county.
“This surprised a lot of folks when it came out in the environmental impact report,” says Robin Bolster-Grant, the county’s newly appointed Santa Cruz County cannabis licensing manager. “The economic impact extends beyond tax implications.”
It was no surprise, though, to the industry’s most vocal advocates. Cannabis attorney Ben Rice tells GT, “The EIR said what I and folks in the industry have been saying for several years.”
A 45-day comment window for the EIR closes at 5 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 16, and one unexpected development so far has been a surprising lack of controversy surrounding this sometimes-heated topic. Cannabis regulation, after all, nudges up against touchy subjects like property rights, zoning questions, neighborhood concerns, business interests, access to medicine, and—yes, of course—users’ desire to get high.
“A big part of our job is to help educate folks about the industry and what our process will look like,” Bolster-Grant says. “It is rigorous and people will have to show they are growing responsibly.”
In exploring options for a cannabis licensing program, the draft EIR divides the project into two versions—one similar to what the county originally recommended, allowing for large-scale cultivation to major operators with the right setup, and another option that it deems “more permissive” and which goes further. Not surprisingly, the latter is just the kind of option that Rice and many cultivators are rooting for, in the hopes that it will bring more small-time growers into a legal framework.
“The sensible way to move forward—and consider the environmental impacts, neighborhood impacts and overall value or problems associated with this new industry—is best dealt with by taking a more permissible approach,” Rice says.
Bolster-Grant says the licensing office is also aiming to bring as many businesses as possible into a regulated framework, as a way to avoid harmful environmental problems along the way. The EIR stands by many of the county’s proposed strict regulations, like ones prohibiting grows within 100 feet of perennial streams, and preventing operations that would cause a direct physical change to the environment. The document also suggests maintaining strict regulations that prohibit cannabis cultivation and sale within 600 feet of schools, libraries, parks, and drug and alcohol treatment facilities. Those elements are important to many youth advocates.
“At the core, we’re hoping having some regulations in place will limit youth access,” says Jenna Shankman, a community organizer for the Santa Cruz County Community Prevention Partners.
Since 2010, the partnership has advocated for “a diverse community that promotes health and well-being” through alcohol and drug prevention. Shankman and her colleagues have yet to go through the details of the EIR, but she has high hopes for regulating the emerging legal market, which could be officially online early next year, depending on what happens in Sacramento. According to the California Healthy Kids Survey, she says 77 percent of Santa Cruz County 11th graders say it’s easy for them to obtain marijuana.
“We know the black market is a big source of that access,” she says.
Rice argues new research has shown that a more regulated environment might indeed cut back on that black market. Earlier this month, the federal government released the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, showing only 6.5 percent of teens ages 12 to 17 use marijuana on a monthly basis. This represents a significant drop from 2014, when several states first opened their recreational marijuana stores, and it’s the lowest use rate among the age group since 1994. People in the industry argue there’s a connection between the drop and the newly regulated markets.
“The study also shows that in places with legal cannabis use less people are drinking,” Rice says. “It’s an argument many in the cannabis community have been claiming for a long time.”
Since the local laws aren’t finished, the cannabis business owners can’t purchase new licenses yet, but the county encourages them to register for pre-licensing inspections through the county website. However, Bolster-Grant says that out of the roughly 760 registered cannabis cultivators, only 25 so far have paid the $2,500 application fee.
“It’s a slow process,” she admits. “These are folks who have not, traditionally, been out and open about what they’re doing. So they’re understandably resistant to say, ‘Here I am.’”
Public comments on the Environmental Impact Report can be submitted to the Santa Cruz County Planning Department until 5 p.m. on Oct. 16. There will also be a public meeting on the draft EIR from 6 to 8 p.m. on Oct. 2 on the fifth floor of the Board of Supervisors chambers at 701 Ocean St., Santa Cruz. For more information, visit sccoplanning.com.