Public officials, members of the marijuana industry, and the community weigh in on the various factors that the county must consider as new cannabis laws are drafted. With a dispensaries ordinance now in effect, how will regulation for cultivators play out?
On a cold, clear afternoon in mid October, I sat in the passenger seat of a white pickup truck next to a man named Bryce, a staunch advocate and experienced cultivator of medical marijuana for the Santa Cruz-based California Growers Collective (CGC). As we drove up Highway 9 and into the mountains of the San Lorenzo Valley toward our destination, one of CGC's two cannabis grow sites in the county, Bryce handed over a cloth blindfold and asked that I slip it over my eyes, which he and the collective's attorney, Ben Rice, had suggested earlier as a means for plausible deniability on the farm's whereabouts.
The car wound its way up the road and Bryce, 32, talked about his visions for the medical marijuana industry, including how to regulate it, and his conviction in the drug's potential as a substitute for a variety of pharmaceuticals. For privacy and safety reasons, Bryce requested that he be cited only by his first name.
Bryce is the co-founder, compassion program volunteer coordinator, and patient cultivator director of CGC, which provides affiliated medical marijuana patients with sustainably produced strains of cannabis that help alleviate their symptoms. He is representative of a marijuana industry that focuses primarily on the production of high-quality, scientifically tested, affordable cannabis while self-regulating their output in order to not oversaturate the market, an approach that stands in contrast to some industry players who come with a more mass-production, profit-oriented ideology. Marijuana capitalists, if you will.
To accomplish these kinds of standards, CGC operates as a “closed loop,” modeled after the Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana (WAMM), which opened locally in 1993 as the nation's first marijuana collective. The closed loop system relies on its members to help cultivate the plants and, in turn, supplies only in-house, helping to keep the marijuana from entering an illicit marketplace. To ensure safe, quality medicine, CGC regularly supplies samples of their cannabis to Santa Cruz Labs, where the product can be tested for potency and mold.
With a push in recent years to legitimize the medical marijuana industry, Santa Cruz County leaders have been working since last summer to draft an ordinance that protects the community as well as the environment while simultaneously ensuring that dispensaries can meet their cultivation standards and fulfill the needs of their clientele. Due to the sticky nature of legally regulating medical marijuana, disagreements among the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors and a vocal Santa Cruz marijuana industry, pinning down a workable legal ground has amounted to a slow crawl through hazy terrain.
“It's inherently difficult to thread the needle on this one because the federal government has banned the substance, but the voters in California have said it should be available for medical purposes,” says 3rd District Supervisor Neal Coonerty. “We're trying to walk that fine line and it's very difficult to come up with something that's workable and anticipates how the federal government is going to respond.”
A federal law, called the Controlled Substance Act of 1970, prohibits the cultivation and distribution of cannabis, while California's laws—the 1996 Compassionate Use Act and the Medical Marijuana Program Act of 2004—create a narrow framework of immunity for limited personal medical purposes, which frames up the murkiness of the relationship between the federal government and various California counties, such as Santa Cruz, which draft their own marijuana laws.
On Tuesday, Oct. 29 of last year, the Board of Supervisors, in a 3-2 vote, approved new regulations for the approximately dozen dispensaries in the unincorporated parts of the county, setting limits on hours of operations, enforcing mandatory distances from schools and other sensitive areas, and requiring background checks for employees. The dispensary ordinance went into effect the first week of January. An earlier version of the ordinance included limits on cultivation, but, because of disagreements among industry professionals and the county on regulation, the issue was removed from the proposal.
“[Consensus] kind of broke down,” says 1st District Supervisor John Leopold, “so we decided to deal with the dispensaries separate from the cultivation.”
Bryce also sits on the board of the Association for Standardized Cannabis (ASC), which represents about 10 dispensaries in Santa Cruz County. The ASC was formed two years ago to organize members of the local cannabis industry and weigh in on a 2011 county ordinance that addressed dispensary operations. However, due to a Southern California court case that cast doubt on the legality of counties issuing sellers permits for dispensaries, there was a temporary moratorium, which expired on Nov. 15, on the local ordinance.
Around the same time, the California Supreme Court reviewed another case—City of Riverside v. Inland Empire Patient's Health and Wellness Center—which, in May of 2013, backed counties' legal authority to regulate locally. So, with new clarity, the Santa Cruz County Counsel, which provides the county with legal representation, was directed to re-examine marijuana law, prompting the ASC to reunite in full form last summer.
As Santa Cruz County busies itself with drafting and passing local laws, the marijuana industry in Colorado is making national headlines after legalizing recreational use for people 21 years of age and older on Wednesday, Jan. 1.
In an effort to pass a similar law to Colorado's, the California Cannabis Hemp Initiative, among several organizations, is gathering signatures to get a vote into the November 2014 general election ballot. Organizers will need more than 500,000 valid signatures from registered voters by Feb. 24 to qualify.
On the Farm
As the white pickup lurched to a stop, Bryce told me I could remove the blindfold. We were somewhere near the top of a mountain, surrounded by tall trees with bright sunlight filtering through their leaves. We got out of the vehicle and two large dogs bounded forward to greet us, tails wagging, and began nuzzling my hand. Not a great deterrent for any would-be intruders.
On the ride up, with my eyes covered, visions of a high-security crop farm, perhaps guarded by men wearing bandanas over their faces and carrying rifles, ran through my mind. But, upon arrival, the environment was much more tranquil than I could have anticipated. Several young men and women busied themselves moving plant nutrients, stopping to introduce themselves amiably as they passed by.
The property hosts two large greenhouses, both of which contain a significant number of cannabis plants. Bryce requested that the exact numbers not be published. These two greenhouses supply up to 25 to 50 percent of the medicine for their 7,500 members. They work closely as a “closed loop system” with more than two dozen patient cultivators who have agreed to their best practices and quality control measures to ensure their members a safe medicine supply.
“It's the best way that we're able to ensure that we're operating by rules, self-regulating, and decreasing diversion,” he says.
Bryce says that large grow operations are the best option for the industry, patients and the county. Having more plants being cultivated in centralized programs allows the collectives to have better quality control over the medicine, allows patients to access it at better prices, and allows authorities to check in on fewer sites rather than many smaller ones.
“If the county only has to go to one main grow site,” he says, “it is much easier for them to see if the operation is tearing up a hillside or allowing runoff to flow into a water supply.”
When the 2011 ordinance was being drafted, Bryce says supervisors encouraged dispensaries to distribute only cannabis that was locally grown, which he says is an important means for regulating legality and quality.
“If [cultivators] are coming over from San Jose, we don't know how it was cultivated, or if they're using pesticides the day before harvest,” he says. “If dispensaries are buying cannabis from whoever comes through the door, then it's hard to know what it is.”
Bryce says many of the commercial, often indoor grow operations in business all over the state are run by people whose sole purpose is making a lot of money. Some of these cultivators are pumping their cannabis full of nutrients and flower hardeners, which can be dangerous for consumers, in order to generate the largest yield possible. These cultivators, who have full authorization to sell to dispensaries, take far fewer precautions in producing safe medicine.
“But that's just one of the risks with having an unregulated industry,” Bryce says.
A component of the medical marijuana industry that is contributing to its safety and credibility are third-party laboratories that test the substance for quality, safety and strength.
Ian Rice, sales director and co-founder of Santa Cruz Labs, and also a member of the ASC board, says one aspect of the company’s goal is to encourage better business practices among collectives and dispensaries.
Santa Cruz Labs is testing hundreds of cannabis samples from collectives every day, gathering information on the microbiology of the substance, helping to ensure that cultivators are not using pesticides and that the marijuana is free of mold, he says, adding that they “want to help dispensaries distinguish themselves as professional and capable of providing the best medicine they can. It's a way for patients to finally have some quality assurance.”
Rice, who is the son of attorney Ben Rice, says drafting an ordinance to regulate medical marijuana is like trying to get several complex worlds to mesh together smoothly.
“There's the federal illegality, the medical world, the recreational perspective, and local law,” he says. “It's such a tangled web.”
However, Rice notes that many people in the industry are working hard to operate their business models and cultivation activities as transparently as possible. He says he is pleased that the county is working as hard as they are to find solid, legal ground for the industry.
“There's a lot of innovation involved and we're trying to play with politics as they try to come up with regulations for a completely unregulated market,” he says. “And I think that's a good thing, because it's a rapidly emerging industry.”
The CGC cultivation site that Bryce showed me produces three harvests over the course of a year. In one of the greenhouses, there are about two dozen different strains of cannabis, varying slightly in their flower structure and coloration, ranging from forest greens to deep burgundy purples. Strain names include “Lavender Kush,” “AC/DC,” “Love Cut,” and “Harlequin,” all of which have exceptionally high levels of Cannabidiol, or CBDs. CBD is one of the compounds in cannabis that does not have psychotropic qualities, so it does not change the user's mind state, but has been shown to alleviate pain, nausea, and anxiety for people with severe illness.
“This is one of my favorite strains,” Bryce says, delicately touching the leaves of the Harlequin. “It has a lot higher CBD content than THC, so it's a purely medicinal strain.”
He speculates that CBD will be one of the most researched compounds over the next 20 years.
“For patients who don't want to deal with the psychotropic effects of cannabis, but still want the relief, high CBD and low THC strains are the way to go,” he says. “I believe in CBDs. I think this is such a wonderfully powerful medicine, and I think that it has the ability to increase the quality of people's lives so much, and without the side effects of pharmaceuticals.”
As the industry works its way into a legal and legitimate medical framework, Bryce hopes to see the exotic names of strains, like “OG Kush” and “Sour Diesel,” to fade away and be replaced by names that indicate their THC and CBD strain potency or medical purpose.
“Someday,” Bryce says, “I would love it if you walk into a dispensary and, instead of seeing all the names, you see a chart with the testing and what the studies have shown they help alleviate.”
Prior to being nixed, the cultivation part of the county’s recently passed ordinance stated that growing within a residence would be limited to 100 square feet, and that indoor cultivation in a non-residence would be limited to one building per parcel and on no more than 100 square feet per patient, but not exceeding 300 square feet. The same limitation would be placed on an outdoor cultivation site for a parcel smaller than one acre, while parcels larger than one acre could have up to 1,000 square feet.
Bryce says those limitations were too constraining, but that the real kicker was a condition that would have prohibited outdoor cultivation on any parcel of land where indoor growing takes place, and vice versa. He says that the either-or stipulation is “extremely unfeasible” for most local growers. For people who cultivate in greenhouses or outdoors, they start their clones indoors and then move them outside, while many collectives that grow outdoors during the summertime move indoors during the winter to keep a steady supply.
Additionally, he says, limiting the number of plants stifles collectives' breeding programs and their ability to preserve multiple genetics.
“Many different strains are needed for the various diseases and ailments that medical cannabis has been proven to provide relief for,” Bryce writes to Good Times in an email.
In December, both Leopold and 2nd District Supervisor Zach Friend submitted letters to the board proposing new cultivation guidelines that would address the issue that was dropped from the original ordinance. Friend, who, along with 4th District Supervisor Greg Caput, has leaned toward tight regulation, suggested a 25 plant limitation for cultivators, which mirrored a law in Mendocino County.
The current law states that each medical marijuana card carrier can grow in a 10 x 10 square foot area, but that there are no limitations on how many card carriers can grow in their allotted spacing per location.
“You could have 10 x 10 times an unlimited number of cards, and one of the things we've seen in my district is 15 medical marijuana cards stapled to a garage for a 1,500 square foot grow in a residential neighborhood,” Friend says. “That's problematic and that's what I've been trying to reduce.”
Friend started mobilizing on the issue after hearing concerns from constituents about growing in their neighborhoods.
“I think there's a frustration that says, 'I didn't buy a home to move in next to a bunch of marijuana plants. So why is this being allowed under the current ordinance?'” Friend says. “The system is clearly being gamed by individuals who are making a significant profit off of this. Absent [of] any state or federal clarity on this, we need to take this land use issue into our own hands. With 25 plants, you can still obtain a significant amount of marijuana. And it's just difficult to argue that there's a supply issue within Santa Cruz County, but it is very obvious that we have neighborhood and environmental issues.”
Friend's 25 plant proposal, however, did not pass a vote on Tuesday, Nov. 19, with only Caput backing him.
Bryce says that such a severe limitation would do more harm to the industry than good.
“Our methods of cultivation utilize a larger number of smaller plants rather than large outdoor plants that you would find in the northern part of the state,” he says.
One outdoor plant in Mendocino County can average up to five pounds and take up to 100 square feet, says Bryce, but 25 indoor or greenhouse plants can fit into a fraction of that space and on average yield one to two pounds per 1000 watt light or up to two pounds outdoors in Santa Cruz County.
The proposals in Leopold's letter, which the board decided to move forward with, suggested sticking with the 10 x 10 square foot limitation, but disallowing each card holder to harvest their own 10 x 10 plot at the same location, Leopold says. People with more than five acres of land can grow in up to 2,000 square feet, and up to 3,000 square feet in a commercially zoned area or a property of more than 10 acres. County Counsel came back with an ordinance on Dec. 10 that reflected Leopold's proposals with an addition of a 99-plant cap-off. The ordinance will also devise a third-party program involving the Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau that will address environmental protections, specially zoned grow areas, and a certification quality control program, Leopold says.
Following an environmental review period, that ordinance will go back before the Board of Supervisors for a vote on Jan. 28, he says.
Friend believes that the cannabis industry's resistance to cultivation limits is less about the needs of medical marijuana patients and more about protecting commerce.
“I think you can still meet the true medicinal needs without aiding commerce, which unfortunately some of this has become,” he says. “People can sustain a legitimate medical benefit from concentrated cannabis—that is true, but that can be done without having the level of supply that we have in this county and the level of take-over in the environment.
“This is not supposed to be about profit,” Friend adds, “this is supposed to be about health. My concern is not being able to insure that a local dispensary can take over a neighborhood or take over the environment up in the hills—it's that we can protect the integrity of those locations.”
He also believes that the product can still be found in ways that protect those other two components. “Not all of our goods in a grocery store are produced locally,” he says, “and I'm pretty sure that if you're in the world of commerce, you can figure out how to get the product you need [from outside the county] without necessarily destroying the integrity of the environment.”
Some people in the community feel that a law on cultivation is the most urgent due to the illicit operations that are degrading the environment in the mountains and causing other social and safety risks in their neighborhoods.
Those issues include the people employed by cultivators coming and going at all hours of the day and night—usually for hourly wages trimming the product into manicured nuggets—light and smell pollution, unsafe electrical wiring for powerful lights, and, up in the mountains, unauthorized grading, diversion of streams, and tree-clearing.
Gordon Stewart, a resident of Deer Creek in the Santa Cruz Mountains, says the lack of oversight and regulation on grow operations in his area is causing major problems. He points out overuse of the roads, bright lights at night, trespassing on his property, water pollution, and “unsavory
characters” frequenting the area are all common to the grow operations he has seen over the years. Many of the violations he describes are already restricted by laws that he says the county is failing to enforce.
Stewart has several natural hydro springs on his land, which he says used to flow year-round, but that cultivators in the area have been tapping the water sources dry. Most recently, he says, cultivators are bringing in large water trucks that damage the roads.
“A lot of these are bootleg operations and the motivation is greed—pure and simple,” he says. “A lot of people are being harmed and certainly it's taking a toll on the environment.”
A Vietnam veteran, Stewart says he lives with severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Three years ago, he had invasive cancer surgery and was prescribed with a variety of opioid medications for the pain. However, he says none of them provide him with relief the way marijuana does.
“The only thing that really works is cannabis,” he says. “It allows you to forget those painful memories. Whatever pain you’re suffering from—it relieves it.”
Stewart says that he is in full support of well-run, safe cultivation sites and supports medical marijuana.
“I'm not down on people who are trying to cultivate, but I want it controlled, I want it to be reasonable, I don't want these people ruining my life and ruining other people's lives, showing no respect for the environment, and making a lot of money without giving something back to the community,” he says.
Bryce says the land use issues are entirely valid concerns.
“There needs to be a way for the county to enforce the laws that are already on the books,”
he says. “You have to have a permit to cut down trees or grade, and there are laws in place that don't allow you to dump agricultural waste into
our watershed. And unfortunately, [some] cannabis cultivators are guilty of many of those things.”
The goal for ASC on the cultivation end is to establish a legal framework that makes it clear to law enforcement when the operation is legitimate.
“Right now it's all discretionary,” Bryce says. “There needs to be paperwork that law enforcement can look at and know they have to leave a collective alone.”
The law, he says, should allow the county to enforce cultivators to operate safely, sustainably, not degrade the land, and give the county the ability to regulate the people who are not abiding by the ordinance.
“There are a lot of people who aren't aware or don't care, and they're buying up properties and they're destroying them in two or three years for a profit,” he says. “That's what has happened in Mendo[cino], as well as locally.”
Bryce says that the cultivators who are not making any attempts to work sustainably and safely will continue to do so regardless of what an ordinance says.
“We need something that enables the county to go after the people who are just completely manipulating the system, creating huge commercial grows in residential areas or clear-cutting mountaintops,” he says. “It breaks down to enforcement.
“Rather than trying to focus all of the effort on [restricting] cultivation, it seems like it would be more prudent to focus on ways to generate funds so they can then have the ability to go after the people who are breaking these rules.”
If an ordinance fails to provide a framework that allows the people who want to legally and safely cultivate enough cannabis for a collective's members, he says, then the law will harm only the establishments that are committed to operating legitimately.
“We need to have a regulatory system that brings people into the light,” he says, “so [that the county] can enforce the law.”
Mike Corral, the co-founder and former agricultural director for WAMM (he left the organization last summer), says that figuring out how to regulate the medical marijuana industry is a very complex task, and that there is no one one-size-fits-all law, especially for cultivation.
He believes that the majority of marijuana cultivators who care about their craft are striving for transparency and are interested in adhering to the law. Unfortunately though, he says, “politicians legislate for the few”—those who are abusing the system and causing problems—“and not for the many.
“My fear is that some of these regulations will end up lessening the supply of good, green organic medicine for patients,” Corral tells Good Times. “There's plenty of marijuana out there, but not all of it is grown to a standard that is acceptable for a patient's use. So the real trick here is, how can regulations be fashioned that address the environmental and residential issues, and at the same time ensure there is complete patient access?”
On Tuesday, Sept. 24, during one of the county's first Board of Supervisors meetings addressing a new marijuana ordinance, dozens of concerned members of the community, cannabis industry representatives, and medical marijuana patients stood in line to address the board. Among them was a middle-aged man who, after approaching the podium, identified himself as a retired nurse living with terminal cancer.
“I understand that you guys have some really trippy stuff to work out,” he told the board, referring to the complexities of the developing ordinance. “I don't get it. All I know is that, at the end of the day, I'm ill. I have cancer. I haven't quite gone down the trail yet, but I'm heading there. So, for me—for a lot of us—this is about day-to-day quality of life. So all I got to say is, ‘Work it out.’”
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