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County takes innovative approach to cannabis cultivation as March deadline looms

Jarrad Pecoraro, the director of Herbal Cruz on 41st Avenue, says that some of the county’s medical marijuana guidelines put a strain on supply. PHOTO: CHIP SCHEUER

As he points out items in his 41st Avenue shop, Jarrad Pecoraro, the director of Herbal Cruz, sounds more like Willy Wonka than a marijuana expert.

“Over here we have everything from ice cream and frozen popsicles to blueberries covered in chocolate, espresso beans covered in chocolate and candy bars of every flavor,” he says.

Along with more than 100 strains of cannabis flowers—the buds and blossoms that most people think of when they imagine cannabis—Herbal Cruz’s shelves boast iced teas, bubble gum, medicinal balms and ointments, saltwater taffy, cupcakes and cookies. Unlike what’s available on the black market, everything at Herbal Cruz has been properly weighed and lab tested to ensure patients know what they are getting.

Scores of cities and a half a dozen counties have approved bans [on cannabis]. “The term in the industry is ‘Banapalooza.’’’

But not everything is sweet for the medical marijuana industry, with growers and patients trying to navigate an ever-changing landscape of marijuana laws and enforcement policies. Cultivation laws have been the blazing question at the center of the cannabis issue both in Santa Cruz County and across the nation.

Locally, a 13-member advisory panel called the Cannabis Cultivation Choices Committee—or C4, for short—was chosen last year by the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors to tackle that question. Five of the C4’s members were chosen to represent county supervisors and their constituents; five more were picked to represent the cannabis industry; and three members were added for their “knowledge of land use, neighborhood issues, environmental protection or the medicinal value of cannabis.”

But while the C4 was poring over details last October, Gov. Jerry Brown signed the Medicinal Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act (MMRSA). The bill not only formed the Bureau of Medicinal Marijuana Regulation, but also set a controversial March 1 deadline for all cities and counties to present regulatory and licensing programs—a provision lawmakers say slipped in by accident. A bill is currently awaiting a vote in the assembly to undo the “mistake.”

In the meantime, many communities have responded by completely banning cannabis altogether. So far, scores of cities and a half a dozen counties have approved bans.

“The term in the industry is ‘Banapalooza,’’’ says Patrick Malo, co-founder of Santa Cruz’s Cannabis Advocates Alliance (CAA), and a C4 member.

In Weed We Trust

Instead of giving in, the C4 is working to sort out the complex issues that swirl around a booming industry.

There are currently 18 states that allow medicinal use, and in the last four years, five states have legalized recreational cannabis use. ArcView Market Research, based in Oakland, estimates the value of California’s legal cannabis industry was a whopping $1.3 billion in 2015.

Business is blossoming locally, as well. Between November 2014 and October 2015, Santa Cruz County marijuana tax revenues of $1.95 million exceeded officials’ estimates. Patients pay the standard 8.25 percent sales tax as they would for any product at any other store. On top of that, the 14 regional brick-and-mortar dispensaries also pay an additional 7 percent tax, exclusive to their industry.

“We don’t pass that on to our patients,” Pecoraro says.

Despite the rise in recreational and medicinal cannabis use throughout the country, the cultivation of commercial cannabis has a sticky history, thanks to rapidly changing laws—and it’s been no different in Santa Cruz County. In 2014, the Board of Supervisors ratified County Code 7.126, which legalized cultivation for commercial medicinal use, limiting farmers to 99 plants. Many advocates in the cannabis community believed this was problematic due to the difference in size between outdoor and indoor yields. It also raised concern because it called for all farmers in the county to be tied to a local dispensary, while most cultivators elsewhere service several dispensaries throughout the state.

A year later, everything went up in smoke.

In March of 2015, citing environmental concerns along with neighborhood complaints of light and noise pollution, the board repealed 7.126, ratifying a new ordinance that banned commercial cultivation and limited each grow to a 100-square-foot space for personal use only. The new language also removed much of the limited protection given to farmers.

Anxiety ignited soon after, with reform-minded grower groups like the CAA forming in direct response to that proposed ban. “Santa Cruz has a long history of progressive politics, and has always been a leader on the cannabis front,” explains Malo.

Two months later, advocates filed a ballot referendum to repeal the changes, gaining 11,210 signatures, well over the 7,248 signatures needed to qualify. Afraid of losing at the ballot, the board repealed its ban, reverted back to the previous rules and created the C4 committee to craft some innovative reforms.

Consensus Builders

The committee was designed to draw up specific recommendations for the legal, commercial cultivation of cannabis within the county while taking into consideration the concerns of patients and neighborhoods. It also aims to provide a framework for the county to cope with pot legalization, which many expect California voters to approve this year.

So far, the C4 has gone on field trips to dispensaries, farms and areas damaged by mismanaged farms. And with stakeholders that have wildly different views, the process has been anything but speedy. But it has helped create the framework for a new licensing program that County Counsel Dana McRae introduced in December.

The Medical Cannabis Cultivation Licensing Program appoints an officer to distribute one of two licenses for cultivation—a “Cottage Garden” license for 200 square feet of covered space or a large-scale cultivator license for 500 square feet. The program also calls for several suggestions discussed by the C4, including lifting the “county only” sale regulations to allow farmers to supply dispensaries throughout the state. (Pecoraro estimates 70 percent of Herbal Cruz’s items come from within Santa Cruz County.) The program set a March 1 deadline for the C4 to work out the details.

In its Jan. 21 meeting, the C4 took a vote on the details of how the state’s latest rules will now affect growers in the coming years. Most of the meeting was spent balancing the best way to protect the sanctity and safety of county neighborhoods with the livelihoods of farmers and the health of patients.

“The problems the neighborhoods faced that caused the county to put the reactive ban in the first place are real problems associated with an unregulated market,” Malo says. “We’re trying to form a regulated market to bring in the people who have been doing their very best to follow the law.”

 

Contributor at Good Times |

Mat Weir originally hails from Southern California but don't hold that against him. For the past decade he has reported on the Santa Cruz music scene and has kept the reading public informed on important community issues such as homelessness, rent hikes, addiction and social injustices. He is a graduate from UCSC, is friends with a little dog name Ruckus and one day will update his personal page, WeirdJournalism.com.

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