County leaders explore path to cannabis policy

March 23, 2017

The Merced County Board of Supervisors this week weighed in on the direction they feel the county should take in light of the state’s legalization of marijuana by a 56 percent vote in the Nov. 2016 election.
Locally, 51.48 percent of Merced County voters supported legalization, and 48.52 percent opposed it.
During Tuesday's regular meeting, County Executive Officer Jim Brown listed the supervisors’ concerns as follows: Conflicting state and federal laws, public safety, health, land use, and social services. He explained that the county might need to engage outside assistance in addressing the concerns.
Brown said, "No one is saying, ‘Let’s go down this road.’ This is a complicated issue. This is an issue that’s going to take a lot of time. The impacts cross the whole organization. We want to better understand the issues surrounding it."
Board Chairman Daron McDaniel agreed with the summary, but added that he would like to ascertain "the full financial cost of doing business," and "look at the tax structure to offset our costs."
Supervisor Lloyd Pareira asked, "If a company wanted to test for THC levels as a private business, is a lab to test it a viable business?"
Supervisor Jerry O’Banion wanted to make sure "any contract with anyone comes through the full Board for approval first."
He also said, "The sheriff should be in on this."
Chairman McDaniel proposed a meeting "right away" with the supervisors and the mayor and city manager of each city in the county to "find out where they’re going."
During the meeting, David McPherson, cannabis compliance director for HdL Companies, a consulting firm representing 400 local governments in California, presented a power point entitled "Cannabis Policy Workshop."
During an interview with the Times, McPherson said, "The state is focusing on trying to regulate the industry. The Legislature is trying to address what’s happening in California, and then there is Proposition 64 addressing the recreational world and what that means. All the local agencies are trying to identify how to take care of the marijuana issues. There needs to be some guidance for California, and the counties are trying to figure out what their role is and how to get a grasp on it."
He continued, "Merced County’s administration asked the Board of Supervisors to provide guidance and direction. My Power Point was designed to help provide direction. The question is what do the supervisors want to allow in the community, and what does that mean?"
Describing the current law in California, McPherson said, "Prop. 64 allows an individual to be able to grow six cannabis plants indoors. You don’t have to have a doctor’s recommendation in order to be able to consume it. It’s legal to consume it and have it in your possession as long as you’re not doing it in public. If you walk down your sidewalk smoking a joint, now it’s unlawful. It is illegal to consume it in public."
He continued, "The county will have to do legal regulation on recreational marijuana, but they can’t ban the growing of six plants indoors and consumption indoors. An individual can possess 28.5 grams and 8 grams of product for recreational use. Currently, the county allows the growing of 12 plants on one property for medical purposes.
They have a ban on outdoor grows." Comparing the laws on the medical marijuana side with the laws on the recreational marijuana side, he said, "A medical dispensary, if it has a local license, can get a state license when the time comes. The law says you can’t get a state license unless you show proof you have a local license. But under Prop. 64, for recreational marijuana, the authors said the state does not have to verify if there is a local license, they just have to verify if there is a ban in place. If there is no ban in place on the recreational side, the state could issue a local license without asking the locals for permission. That means the local agencies need to create a ban on everything they don’t want, and the only thing they can’t ban is six plants indoors for recreational use."
He explained, "The county knows there will be a lot of illegal activity and is wanting direction from the supervisors as to whether or not they want to explore options. Even with a ban, people will still do things unlawfully and the county would have to deal with unregulated illegal grows, health issues, calls for service for complaints, public consumption and other illegal activities. They are trying to be cautious about their approach."
He exclaimed, "In another agency I’m dealing with, they’ve discovered that if they don’t regulate anything and have to deal with the unregulated businesses, it’ll cost them $3 million in services! There’s a cost of services, regardless of what you do. How do you deal with that when you have no funding mechanism? So you can charge a fee for the regulated businesses and charge a tax, and then you’ll have revenue to deal with the issues because you have a funding source."
Before CEO Brown’s statement of the direction the Supervisors would like to explore, there was an opportunity for discussion and for public comment.
On the subject of taxes, District 4 Supervisor Lloyd Pareira said that when he was attending a conference in Washington, DC, he was talking to a past supervisor of a county in Colorado, and she told him that taxes don’t compensate the county for the increase in costs due to the
social problems recreational marijuana brings.
At the meeting, Merced County Sheriff Vern Warnke exclaimed, "I don’t want it [exploration of recreational marijuana regulation]! For years, we’ve had the medical marijuana ordinance, and more home invasions, murders and thefts. We’re dealing with organized crime because of the sales of it. Recently, we had a shoot-out in the middle of the afternoon over a marijuana grow."

Planada Plan
At the meeting, a public hearing conducted on the proposed revised Planada Community Plan was continued to the March 28 Board of Supervisors meeting.
Mark Hendrickson, the county's economic development director, explained, "The county is updating the Planada Community Plan, a specific plan consistent with the county’s General Plan. We do these community plans in our larger unincorporated communities. As a part of
this, the county has undertaken a significant effort to engage the community so as to develop zoning and land uses for Planada into the year 2035."
He continued, "Staff made a presentation at the public hearing, but we had received correspondence on March 20 and staff needed to analyze the comments made, so next Tuesday, March 28, the Supervisors will consider the Planada Community Plan along with its associated environmental document."
He added, "The county adopted its Housing Element last year, and the local governments have to have adequate land set aside to meet the affordable housing goals of the state."
Francisco Nunez, project manager of Real Estate Development with Self-Help Enterprises, spoke. Gesturing toward the center of the map of Planada displayed, he explained that there is a single family residential developer who is ready to develop.
During an interview with the Times, Hendrickson explained, "One goal of the Housing Element was to re-zone 48.7 acres in the County, and since we were in the middle of a community plan update, Self-Help Enterprises proposed an affordable housing project to bring to the community of Planada. The future development would be single family residences, and the target audience would be those who meet the State’s income guidelines for affordable housing."
Marisol Aguilar, staff attorney with California Rural Legal Assistance, expressed how pleased she was that the proposed Planada Community Plan addressed residents’ concerns in that it allowed for sidewalks for improved pedestrian safety, more park space for recreation, and a mix of zoning and housing to suit every need. She was also happy that the EIR addressed railroad crossing improvements, and asked that that be included in the Community Plan.
Hendrickson concluded, "One goal is to increase walkability, and the Community Plan contemplates sidewalk improvements and roadway improvements throughout Planada. If the Board approves the document on March 28, those types of improvements we hope would be effectuated over time."

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