If anyone is telling you they know what the legal landscape for medical cannabis will be in Santa Cruz County this year or next they are pulling your leg. There are more initiatives, proposals and opinions going around regarding the regulation of cannabis now than at any time in the last 20 years with more likely to come.
Under current Santa Cruz County ordinance 7.126, commercial cultivation is illegal. Violators are given “limited immunity” from prosecution if they follow certain enumerated conditions like limiting the size of their grow to 99 plants and selling only to one of the local dispensaries.
A year ago the County Board of Supervisors (BOS) responding to claims that the ordinance had failed and was unworkable, voted 3-2 to completely ban cultivation except for personal use. That action resulted in a rapid and widespread backlash by local cannabis growers and advocates. A campaign was quickly organized to gather signatures for a referendum effectively suspending the implementation of the ban. Rather than risk a ballot initiative asking voters to uphold the ban, the BOS voted to rescind it and revert to the previous ordinance (7.126).
In the meantime the California state legislature passed a series of bills collectively known as the Medical Marijuana and Safety Act (MMRSA) which created a state licensing system with a variety of restrictions and conditions depending upon the size and type of operation. Cities and Counties were assured they could maintain local control if they likewise passed specific ordinances permitting or banning cultivator licenses in their jurisdictions.
Humboldt County became the first County in the state to begin accepting applications for local licenses this week. Santa Cruz County, by passing what they said was an “interim” ordinance in December, indicated they would likely issue licenses for some commercial cultivation but details remain to be worked out.
So far this year 18 counties and over 200 cities in the state have enacted complete bans on all commercial cultivation while a number of other jurisdictions are still debating the issue. .
Locally the City of Scotts Valley adopted a complete ban on all commercial activities, save for “discrete delivery”. In Watsonville an ordinance permitting large scale indoor cultivation appears likely to be adopted. There is a ban in Capitola and the City of Santa Cruz has had an ordinance permitting limited cultivation since 2010. In Monterey County an ordinance is being reviewed that would allow large scale greenhouse grows.
In Santa Cruz County, the BOS appointed 13 citizens, including 5 cannabis community advocates to the Cannabis Cultivation Choices Committee and asked them to try and reach consensus on policy recommendations. Dubbed the C4, the group has been meeting since September. They have already recommended that the County create a licensing program, that growers be allowed to sell outside of the County and that plant count limits be dropped in favor of square footage limits. Additional recommendations are expected from the group sometime in March.
Meanwhile the County Counsel’s office has been meeting with the Sheriff and other County departments as they continue to “build out” the interim ordinance (7.128) which the Board adopted in December with the expectation that further enhancements and amendments would be coming. It remains unclear how closely the County Counsel will incorporate specific recommendations coming out of the C4 in any new language they present to the Board.
Meanwhile some local cannabis advocacy groups are considering an initiative for the ballot that could put the decision in the hands of County voters as early as this June.
Some neighborhood groups and other anti-cannabis factions are busy lobbying individual Supervisors to prohibit cultivation in different parts of the County. In addition it's an election year for three of the five Supervisors. One person has announced they will run against incumbent Supervisor Zach Friend who has supported a ban on any outdoor cultivation even for personal use in the Second District.
Also up for re-election is Fifth District Supervisor Bruce McPherson. McPherson initially supported the ban but lately has been open to finding a solution that ensures environmental protection while permitting what has been a positive economic activity in his district. In April McPherson wrote that "There have been growers in the Santa Cruz Mountains for decades and I expect there will be for decades to come."