The land-use rules for growing medical marijuana may significantly change in San Luis Obispo County on Aug. 23, when the Board of Supervisors will consider an urgency ordinance banning both cultivation in areas zoned residential suburban and new cultivation sites in unincorporated areas countywide.
The idea was pitched on July 26, when the board discussed preliminary steps in developing a permanent ordinance to regulate land use and licensing for the medical cannabis industry. At the meeting, Sheriff Ian Parkinson urged the board to consider more immediate action to stymie the ongoing proliferation of cannabis grows in the California Valley, a rural and remote community in the county’s southeastern corner.
While there have long been low-key marijuana grows in the area, there’s been a recent influx of grows—many run by people from outside the area, including Kern and Fresno counties, where cultivation is banned—planted out in the open in vacant lots. Residents worry that violence and environmental damage will result.
Parkinson said the situation has become so large it will be difficult for law enforcement to properly monitor the situation and worried about a strong potential for violence come harvest time this fall.
“We’ve got the end of season coming up; we’ve got harvest coming up, and I’ll be honest, there is no protected area there when it’s time to harvest,” Parkinson said.
At that meeting, Fifth District Supervisor Debbie Arnold, whose district includes the California Valley, proposed drafting an urgency ordinance to ban new grows there. The proposal passed with a 3-2 vote.
The urgency ordinance will require a four-fifths vote to pass. The item is scheduled for the board’s afternoon session starting at 1:30 p.m.
As proposed, the ordinance would ban new planting at new or existing grow sites in several small pockets and residential subdivisions scattered throughout the county that are zoned residential suburban. It would also ban new cultivation sites in the county’s unincorporated areas.
Small personal or caregiver grows would be exempt, but legal grows that allow up to 99 plants would be banned.
The ordinance has drawn mixed responses from the industry.
The Central Coast Growers Alliance, a small group of long-time medical cannabis cultivators and business owners, said they support the urgency ordinance. Even though they have been critical of key provisions in the permanent ordinance, including setbacks and a limit to 100 cultivation licenses, they said they want to give the sheriff and county code enforcement the tools to handle the situation in the California Valley.
“If the sheriff is happy and the county’s happy, then we’re happy,” said Simon Caleb, a member of the group.
Jason Kallen, executive director of the SLO chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), said the group is “staunchly opposed to any kind of ban.”
Kallen is concerned that the urgency ordinance, while driven by the rapid influx of growers from outside the county, will also impact local and longtime growers.
He recognizes that the situation in California Valley is concerning, but said county code enforcement already has tools to confront the situation and has been doing so. Existing rules can allow the authorities to focus on the bad actors, he said, while the ordinance would also impact responsible actors, both in the California Valley and elsewhere.
In a January story about local restrictions on cultivation, New Times profiled Nic Johnson, whose collective Circle of Dreams Farm grows medical cannabis for several patients. At the time, he grew in the backyard of a residence on a 1-acre parcel in Paso Robles. After the city banned cultivation, Johnson and his family decided to relocate to the California Valley to start a farm and settle down for the long term.
Now he’s worried he’ll become entangled in a ban once more.
“We’ve been jumping around trying to follow the rules as much as possible,” Johnson said. “A lot of people would lose a lot of investment out here if they [pass the ban].”
-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay