There are two marijuana ballot initiatives being circulated locally, the Firestone/Lucia initiative and the Bunch/Scott initiative. The objective of both is to bring commercial marijuana to Plumas County. This push might be seen as a potential illustration of the well-known phrase, “Fool me once, shame on YOU—fool me twice, shame on ME.”
Don’t be fooled.
Proposition 64 passed statewide in November 2016. Recreational marijuana possession and use were decriminalized, and procedures for medical marijuana, first approved in 1996, were refined. I offer an honest hooray for that, as do many voters who didn’t believe marijuana use should send a person to jail. Many of those voters, however, got a bit more than they bargained for.
While Prop.64 decriminalized recreational marijuana, it also gave local jurisdictions the right to regulate how Prop. 64 would work locally. They were given 13 months (until January 1, 2018) to develop ordinances regulating marijuana, otherwise the state would mandate its own. The current Plumas moratorium has extended our deadline to late October 2019.
The Board of Supervisors (BOS) designated a committee, the “Cannabis Working Group” (CWG), to develop an ordinance for Plumas County. Its members were pro-commercial marijuana sympathizers. Some were growers, all were interested in making commercial marijuana legal here. Their draft ordinance was permissive enough to raise eyebrows among other citizens not so inclined, including some who had become aware of the fallout other counties had experienced when they approved commercial growing.
In my opinion, the weakening of the General Plan to favor this single business interest was not appropriate. The CWG draft ordinance would have allowed commercial marijuana cultivation in every zone, including residential, without the usual provisions for environmental review insured by CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) and NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act). It would also have bypassed the Special Use Permit process, which gives neighbors the power to weigh in on activities that will be conducted near their properties.
Medical marijuana maneuver
Prop. 64 provided recreational users of marijuana the ability to grow up to six plants for their own use, just as medical users have been allowed to do since Prop. 215 was passed in 1996. Not every recreational or medical user chooses to grow their own plants. Understood. But here’s a question. Has any marijuana user ever had difficulty finding or purchasing this product in Plumas County, even before Prop. 64 was passed? As one person said in a public meeting I attended, “If you want to know where to find pot, just ask any high school kid.”
The local growers association has repeatedly referred to themselves as “caregivers” for medical patients under Prop. 215, the Compassionate Use Act. That law provides for medical users to obtain a recommendation from a doctor that allows the patient to grow or purchase marijuana. (If you want one for yourself, they are available quite cheaply online, and some “doctors” specialize in providing them after only a single visit. An Indian Valley 15-year-old was found with one in his own name, last year.)
The appropriation of the term “caregiver” to describe a grower who holds prescription cards for patients is an example of savvy marketing, but it has denigrated the service of true caregivers as we’ve previously used the term. Applicable law defines a caregiver as someone who provides housing, supervision, food, and medication for patients. Medical marijuana growers producing plants for patients with prescriptions are not “caregivers” in the same way, rather they’ve grown product on behalf of a patient but could not, under Prop. 215, legally “sell” that product to the patient. They have, however, been able to illegally sell their excess product to other users, and they have done so, taking advantage of a loophole in the proposition.
The initiative sponsored by Firestone/Lucia leverages this “caregiver” euphemism by stating that permits would not be required when growers serve up to five patients with free marijuana. Here’s the math: 6 plants x 5 patients = 30 plants, plus six of growers’ own, totaling 36, all produced without permits from the county. What are the chances all of this production would be given free to medical marijuana users? More likely, excess product would be sold, and that, friends, is a commercial operation, not a compassionate service operation.
Don’t get suckered.
Anyone can promise anything—as long as P.T. Barnum’s words are in play. “There’s a sucker born every minute.” The arguments being made by the commercial-grow folks include the promise that county coffers will swell with permit and licensing fees, plus lots of taxes on sales.
As a cash business, commercial marijuana doesn’t maintain third-party, audited records from which appropriate taxes can be calculated and then paid. Because marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, no banking services are available to the industry. (For the price of a phone call to Sacramento, you can talk to that city’s Pot Czar and get this fact straight from the horse’s mouth.) What do we say about a “deal” that sounds too good to be true?
Plumas County’s largest marijuana grow is in Sierra Valley (now illegal due to our moratorium). They estimated their 2017 net profit at over $4 million, but the cash is shipped in boxes to an offshore bank from its Los Angeles operation sans taxation, hence no financial benefit to Plumas County whatsoever.
The Bunch/Scott initiative calls for commercial marijuana businesses, but only for local growers, not out-of-county interests. The subtext here is that we can trust local growers because they care more about the county than do big corporate interests from elsewhere. This is a business drawbridge, intended to reserve opportunities only for locals.
If voters were to approve this initiative, the county would have to deny outside marijuana businesses to set up shop. This unconstitutional exclusion would undoubtedly be legally tested, and it will be the taxpayers who foot the bill for the county’s legal defense, not the growers behind this initiative. How does that benefit us?
The Firestone/Lucia initiative promotes growing inside locked industrial buildings that won’t produce nighttime light pollution. Because this initiative would expressly prohibit these buildings inside local town boundaries, they would be located in what are now green spaces on what little private land remains in our county. How exactly does that support the initiative’s phrase, “protecting the environment and preserving the natural beauty of Plumas County?”
If the statewide price of marijuana continues to fall, will these indoor businesses fail, leaving metal-clad buildings on what was once lovely meadow vistas? How do metal buildings conform with the principles of the 1965 Williamson Act, which was intended to protect agricultural land from non-agricultural uses (of which industrial-scale marijuana is one)?
Say NO in November.
Don’t be fooled by claims of a better future for Plumas through these initiatives. We need to let the Planning Commission and the BOS work through the standard process that allows public input on multiple draft ordinances waiting to be considered.
The proponents of these initiatives have not explained how their commercial marijuana profits would be taxed into the County Treasury. They have not shown how regulatory oversight would be adequately supported by the industry itself, not the taxpayer. They have not explained how long-term permanent employment would be sustained and for how many, and they have not offered to pay for the costs of environmental analyses.
No other rural county has created satisfactory regulatory control over commercial marijuana, including the industry’s expansion within its boundaries, the thwarting of related illegal activity, or the collection of sufficient tax revenue required to enforce oversight and prevent environmental damage. Is it reasonable to assume a different outcome in the form of a “Plumas Miracle?” Why take the risk?
Allowing commercial marijuana cultivation would result in a net economic loss and is a poor choice to protect both the natural resources and rural lifestyle we enjoy.
Don’t be fooled. Decline to sign these ballot initiatives, and if they do make it to the November ballot, vote them down.
Bill Martin is a retired community college instructor of forestry, biology, and natural resources.