Santa Cruz County officials and medical cannabis advocates struggle to find a middle ground in the county’s cannabis cultivation laws
There are unpermitted water diversions, poisons and pesticides, and forests being plowed over by the acre. Add to that health and building code violations, and it starts to become clear why rural county residents are reaching out to county officials, asking them to stop guerilla marijuana growers—many of whom may be coming from outside of the county—from operating in areas like Bonny Doon and Corralitos.
Their frustrations came to a head at a recent county meeting.
“I saw trees being torn down, trucks with fertilizer from who-knows-where, and no regulation in sight,” said one troubled mountain resident at a Board of Supervisors meeting late last month. “All of this is a nuisance, but finally when cultivation was ripening—with big bushes of over a hundred plants—there was this noxious smell that I was not aware of. My home was inundated with it. It was all saturated. My three-year-old—everything smelled like skunk.”
Even many local medical marijuana advocates are fed up. County supervisors are too, as they struggle to create the best regulations to handle the problem. Bryce Berryessa, a board member of the Association for Standardized Cannabis, worries that the proposed changes to the ordinance would do little to curb the actions of careless cultivators, which he believes are a minority in the county.
“The actions of a few bad players have been so abhorrent and so detrimental to their neighborhoods that the county is really feeling the pressure from neighbors all over in Corralitos and other rural mountain communities,” says Berryessa. “These people have just come in and they’re growing as much pot as they can, and they don’t care how they do it, and don’t care who they upset.”
The Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors passed rules in February 2014 giving limited immunity to medical cannabis dispensaries to grow marijuana for patients in need. But that new ordinance may have brought a wave of guerilla growers, who both Berryessa and 3rd District County Supervisor Ryan Coonerty say probably came from outside of the county. Coonerty says much of the pot is being exported—and not all of it for medicinal purposes.
“We’re trying to find a better balance and discourage these out-of-town cultivators from coming here and starting these commercial agricultural operations in residential neighborhoods,” says Coonerty.
Both Berryessa and Coonerty admit that the claims that growers are not local are mostly anecdotal.
After listening to mounting complaints from county residents, the Board of Supervisors voted in November 2014 to ask the county’s legal counsel to revise the language of the county’s cannabis cultivation laws. The supervisors hope that a new ordinance will still allow patients to get the medicine they need while keeping cannabis grows away from residential areas.
The county’s planning department and legal counsel presented the proposed revisions to the Board of Supervisors at a Jan. 27 meeting. Recommendations included eliminating a 99-plant limit, restricting cannabis cultivations to agricultural and commercial agriculture zoning districts to keep them away from neighborhoods, and creating a “closed loop” relationship between dispensaries and cultivators, which would make the supply chain more transparent. Growers would be registered with the county, and dispensaries would have to report where they get their cannabis.
The Board of Supervisors ultimately voted 5-0 to keep the existing code for now, while county officials work on new language with input from cannabis advocates like Berryessa.
More than 35 county residents spoke in front of the board that day. Among them were citizens concerned about the negative impacts of unsanctioned growers, but speakers were from all over the spectrum.
Some spoke about the effects that marijuana use can have on the juvenile population. “We are here today to keep the impact on youth and the importance of prevention part of this conversation,” Robyn Mckeen, community organizer, said on behalf of the United Way’s Community Prevention Partners. “We now know through scientific research from reputable groups such as the American Academy of Pediatrics that there are long-term negative effects on brain development when marijuana is used in excess during the adolescent years.”
The majority of speakers were local cannabis advocates and medical marijuana patients.
Cannabis advocates expressed the need for increased regulation and enforcement, but disagreed with the language of the proposed ordinance. Berryessa says responsible local cultivators are eager to work with the county to find a middle ground, and that the proposed ordinance would simply put them on the wrong side of the law.
He says that forcing responsible growers into commercial ag and ag zones would not stop the illegal growers in the mountains. “Those people will continue to cultivate, regardless of what the law says, as long as they’re able to,” says Berryessa, also a co-founder of Cookie Co. 831, a cannabis collective.
There are many parties concerned with cannabis cultivation—medical marijuana patients and advocates, dispensaries, concerned citizens, and county officials. They all agree that the negative social and environmental impacts occurring in the mountains needs to be stopped.
At present, the county has limited resources to act on code violators, but with the passage of Measure K, which will increase taxes on marijuana businesses in the unincorporated areas of the county, officials may find the resources they need to put a stop to the illegal grows. The board approved funding on Jan. 27 to hire additional code enforcement officers, something Coonerty says the county is set to do in the near future.
Both county officials and cannabis advocates hope that a third-party certification process for marijuana businesses will be expanded and solidified to further legitimize the local industry. Third-party certifications would ensure that dispensaries are receiving cannabis from growers who are compliant with health and building codes and not degrading the environment. Organizations like the Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau have expressed interest in helping with this process.
“I think that third-party compliance will be one of the tools the county can rely on to make sure that people are abiding by the regulations,” says Berryessa. “Hopefully it will be a tool that allows the county to develop a robust system that allows more than just the dispensaries to cultivate.”
Whatever the board’s policy decision, 2nd District Supervisor, Zach Friend guaranteed at the Jan. 27 meeting that it will not make everybody happy.
Coonerty says that the cultivation policies he and his colleagues are making have little precedent. With the possibility of legalized cannabis on the 2016 ballot, creating a bulletproof ordinance has proven to be an arduous task.
“We are trying to make policy while the ground beneath us is changing, and potentially changing dramatically in 2016,” says Coonerty. “But I think we are heading in the right direction.”