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In constant flux: SLO County's ever-changing draft marijuana ordinance causes confusion, ruffles feathers

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The winding, rocky road to establishing marijuana regulations in SLO County continued with the release of a new draft ordinance on May 1—which looked nothing like the previous one.

In February, the Board of Supervisors gave county staff feedback on a previous draft, which proposed to cap the total number of marijuana cultivation sites in the county at 100 grows. Since then, county staff met in workshop settings with residents about the regulations.

On May 1 the county posted an updated version of the draft regulations online. It contains a drastically different set of rules, perplexing county supervisors and leaving local marijuana industry stakeholders uneasy.

“[The ordinance] is under constant change. It is such a fluid thing,” said Art Trinidade, a county code enforcement supervisor.

The new draft abandons the cap of 100 cultivation sites, which was heavily criticized by industry stakeholders. Instead, it targets the “Nipomo Mesa” area by banning cultivation on sites smaller than 5 acres in that area, prohibiting all outdoor grows there, and requiring a 1,000-foot separation from one site to another. Supervisor Lynn Compton, who represents South County in the 4th District, expressed concern in February about the increased presence of grows in Nipomo.

Jason Callum, president of the SLO chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), said that proposal will likely shut down some current medical marijuana grows in Nipomo.

“I can think of several growers who are going to be put out of business with the way it is now,” Callum said.

Other major changes to the draft were more relaxed setbacks for grows throughout the county (decreasing from 300 feet to 100 feet), allowing cannabis manufacturing with “volatile” substances (i.e., butane), which was previously banned, and allowing for both medical and recreational cannabis dispensaries.

SLO County supervisors expressed surprise and disagreement with the way the ordinance stands now. Supervisor John Peschong, who represents the 1st District in North County, had strong words for the proposed 5-acre minimum in Nipomo, saying it departed from the direction given by the board in February.

“There are probably people who want to raise this crop on property smaller than 5 acres,” Peschong said. “We’re an agricultural county. Are we coming out with a position that a small family farm is bad?”

Peschong also opposed allowing manufacturing with volatile substances.

He wasn’t the only supervisor who showed concern. Supervisor Adam Hill of the 3rd District said he was surprised at some of the restrictions in the ordinance and hoped the county would treat cannabis as much like any other crop as possible.

“It seemed there was some pretty big departures on what we decided,” Hill said. “I had a sense we agreed that we wanted to not put artificial limits on things.”

Trinidade said the constantly evolving nature of legislation at the state level following Proposition 64 presents challenges for the county as it writes the ordinance. Since the state may outlaw agencies targeting restrictions on specific areas like the Nipomo Mesa, the ordinance might have to go back to setting a maximum cap on grows, Trinidade said.

“Here we are creating laws, while the state is also creating laws,” he said.

Other notable components of the draft ordinance include a complete ban on grows in the California Valley, which was where the majority of the grows that registered with county last year under an urgency ordinance originated; banning mobile deliveries unless they’re tied to a licensed dispensary; and giving pre-existing grows first priority for applying for county permits.

The county Planning Commission will review the draft on June 29. The Board of Supervisors aims to adopt a final ordinance in late August, in time to take effect before the state’s rollout of cannabis business licenses in January 2018.

Callum noted that all the confusion and uncertainty with the laws is compounding the difficulties facing SLO locals who have invested in cannabis businesses.

“It’s extremely difficult trying to think about building a business when the regulations are changing on a daily basis,” Callum said.

Contact Staff Writer Peter Johnson at pjohnson@newtimesslo.com.

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