On Tuesday last week, the Board of Supervisors voted three against two to allow the cultivation and sale of marijuana in unincorporated zones of Riverside County. It also directed lawmakers to define a set of regulations to establish exactly how, when, and where pot will grow and be distributed. During the public hearing, four hours long, the board finally agreed on issues under debate for the last two years.
Dozens of people spoke during the hearing. Supervisors John Tavaglione and Marion Ashley, both set to retire at year’s end, opposed the implementation of any regulatory scheme, claiming personal opposition to the open and recreational use of marijuana. “I believe this is taking our society in the wrong direction,” Ashley explained. “I do now want Riverside County to become like Colorado.”
Opposed to Marijuana Sales and Cultivation
In support of her argument, Ashley cited statistics that show threefold increases in cannabis-related traffic crashes in the Centennial State, as well as a growing criminal network of illegal activity since it voted to allow commercial marijuana cultivation and sales six years ago. In her defense, Ashley said, “I am concerned about the impact of this on my children and on your children.”
The supervisor had more say about her stance on commercial weed activity. According to Ashley, “I am fine with medical marijuana use, but not this. By having recreational sales in unincorporated communities, we will be surrounding cities like Menifee, Murrieta, Beaumont, and Riverside that are not doing it.” That does seem a mite unfair for those expressly not wanting such activity in their areas.
For Supervisor Kevin Jeffries, a member of the county’s Cannabis Ad Hoc Committee since early 2017, the decision to allow it has both positives and negatives. He voiced hesitancy at moving forward with legalizing in unincorporated areas. However, he did agree that the tax revenues marijuana sales and cultivation could garner would provide funds for “parks, street lights, community centers” and more.
Plans for Recreational Use of Marijuana
Experts predict that potential monies from granting licenses to cannabis businesses could range from $10 million to $17 million every year. To assess likely income generated for the first year, the board approved a contract for $42,000 with HDL, an accountancy firm based in Brea. Under approved regulations, the county would grant licenses to 19 dispensaries and 50 grow sites in 2019.
However, any commercial business would have to sign individual development contracts with the county before they can even open their doors. Each contract would be subject to approval by the board. Under the Medicinal and Adult-Use Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act, businesses would first need state licenses, but, under Proposition 64, people can still grow up to 24 plants at home.
Regulations for Marijuana Cultivation
The board chose to continue its ban on mobile dispensaries. Even outdoor cultivation facilities have a nursery stock limitation. Large-scale cultivation sites growing mature plants must stay inside buildings, such as greenhouses, even warehouses. They cannot grow openly outside for all to see. Regulations also specify that no development for commercial pot occur in designated areas within the county.
These areas expressly include places where law enforcement stretches too thin, and where residents have made very clear to the County Planning Commission that they do not want the lights, smell, noise, water diversion, and other environmental impacts that come with commercial marijuana cultivation. Zoned as residential-rural, residential-agricultural, and controlled development, they encompass places such as unincorporated Winchester, Sage, and Anza Valley. Pot businesses must go elsewhere.
Bill Donahue, a resident of Sage, voiced his appreciation of the prohibition in his area, telling the board that commercial marijuana cultivation should occur only where “it can be regulated and where you have law enforcement available.” Donahue summed it up, “None of us want anything like a distillery next to our property. If an individual wants to grow six plants for personal use, no problem.”
For Marijuana Sales and Cultivation
Longtime activist for the deregulation of pot activities, Lanny Swerdlow, criticized the county’s ban on having weed businesses operate in these zones. “If you did this to other businesses, they would grind to a halt,” he explained. “What is really beyond comprehension is that you are throwing away tax money by doing this.”
The board considered changing the zoning restrictions, but after listening to officials from the Transportation and Land Management Agency, they opted to leave the stipulations alone. According to these officials, making modifications to the regulations would involving changing the zones themselves, which the board can do at its own leisure.
Understanding the Regulatory Framework
Under current regulations, no marijuana cultivation or sales can occur anywhere within 1,000 feet of daycare centers, parks, schools, and other places that children frequent. Additionally, there can only be one dispensary in a city block, no more. Securing placement for indoor grow sites, in order to create a buffer zone between residential and commercial areas, will require, according to TLMA documents, setbacks of up to 100 feet, depending on the size of a cultivation site.
For Gem Montes, from Inland Empire NORML, or the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, the framework appears “convoluted.” In speaking to the board, she suggested, “Simplify this process and keep costs reasonable. You will only proliferate the black market with all these regulations. Cannabis operators are not sitting on a pile of cash getting high. They are just people.”
Other activists, which included Montes and Swerdlow, denounced the development agreement requirement as overly onerous, suggesting the county was unable to deter marijuana cultivation and sales from creeping into the area. Supervisors Chuck Washington, V. Manuel Perez, and Jeffries voted in favor of the regulations, enabling the board to approve them.
Those voting in favor of marijuana sales and cultivation in unincorporated areas of Riverside County asked the Office of County Counsel and TLMA officials to return in the next two or three months with a framework for fees, developer agreements and other regulations. However, despite this, the motion is not set in stone just yet.
According to Jeffries, since these developer agreements will impose on businesses “benefit costs” that are tantamount to taxation, there is a strong likelihood that the courts will void the entire regulatory scheme. In this scenario, should it occur, voters across Riverside County will have to resolve the matter by deciding for themselves on these issues.