The North Coast's long journey toward cannabis legalization moves at an unpredictable pace, often marching steadily forward, sometimes slowing to a crawl and occasionally stumbling ahead in a Three Stooges-esque melee. But the future is inscrutable, and today's bickering can become tomorrow's productive exchange of ideas as this week's scramble gives way to next month's stately march.
Whatever the direction, some kind of movement happened in Mendocino County last week when a new political group, the Mendocino Heritage Initiative Committee (MHIC), filed a grower-friendly ballot initiative with the county clerk. Hoping to do an end run around the county board of supervisors, whose efforts to craft a new ordinance have progressed at a leisurely (some say reluctant) pace, a familiar team of Mendo canna-activists retained prominent North Coast attorney Omar Figueroa to draft the initiative language. The initiative must now meet the scrutiny of county counsel before signature gathering can begin. Then, if the group can muster 2,502 signatures from registered Mendocino voters by mid June, the initiative will become a measure on the November ballot.
Back in January of 2015, the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors appointed two of its own, Tom Woodhouse and John McCowen, to a marijuana ad hoc committee, and tasked them with bringing back recommendations for a land use ordinance. Both men now say they are within a couple weeks of announcing their proposal, making actual ratification of a new ordinance possible as soon as next month. But growers have expressed worries about the speed and content of the still-secret proposal.
So with Emerald Cup founder and cannabis industry stalwart Tim Blake as its most prominent co-chair, MHIC officially launched its initiative effort at a Feb. 26 event in Ukiah, complete with speeches, a live band, a farm-to-table dinner and locally brewed kombucha. "We just watched Santa Rosa pass a very forward thinking policy," Blake told a crowd, introducing the initiative. "We've watched Humboldt do the same thing. ... I don't want to have us blow it up — that's not what it's about — it's about us just having a fair chance to compete with our neighboring counties, that are, at this point, going to be growing about 10 times as much cannabis as we are."
The initiative, which runs 74 pages, attempts to define and regulate a legal marijuana market in compliance with the state's new Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act (MMRSA). It would create a tiered system of licenses based on canopy size, ranging from a "micro-business" of 2,500 square feet or less, to a tier of between 10,001 square feet and one acre, with each tier subject to varying regulations. The initiative language also includes extensive provisions for other kinds of cannabis-related activity, including extraction, dispensaries, nurseries and transportation.
Though it would create new regulations, the initiative would also grandfather in many growers, allowing those currently cultivating certain grace periods to come into compliance. It would also define cannabis cultivation as an agricultural activity, create a system of appellations, much like in the wine industry, and create some new environmental regulations.
MHIC spokesperson Sarah Bodnar said the initiative would also provide additional revenue to the county through a 2.5 percent business tax on gross medical cannabis receipts. She also pointed out that it would bridge a gap in MMRSA by allowing for local transportation between licensed entities. She said it would also protect local growers and businesses by mandating at least two years of county residency to hold a majority ownership in a marijuana business.
In an interview with the Journal, McCowen expressed some trepidation about the initiative. "Frankly, I'm looking at something that is more balanced, that also protects the community and the environment, rather than just accommodates the perceived needs of the growers," he said. "I want Mendocino County to be known for something besides marijuana."
McCowen said he thinks the local marijuana industry has actually discouraged other kinds of economic development, luring in young people who might otherwise go to college or master some other trade or skill. "Though a lot of [marijuana] money circulates in a community, there are other factors that, if you add them up, I'm not sure we're really coming out ahead," he said.
McCowen also shared some of the details of what his ad hoc committee will be presenting to the supes. In broad strokes, he said the committee will recommend a three-tiered structure based on mature plant count, with varying levels of inspections required. The recommendation would also restrict cultivation to mostly non-residentially zoned areas. The first tier, from one to 25 plants, would see no significant changes from the current system, with the exception of perhaps some new environmental requirements.
The next tier, 25 to 50 plants, would require an application process, a couple site visits by third party inspectors and the purchase of zip-ties. These first two tiers would be administered by the county agricultural commissioner. A third tier, of up to 99 plants, would require an additional inspection and be administered by the sheriff's department, with more stringent zoning restrictions. The sheriff would also have the power to cap the total number of permits for large grows.
Even if MHIC's initiative reaches the ballot, McCowen is skeptical it can pass. Woodhouse, for his part, said he sees some benefit in the matter coming before voters. "I think that's where the decision should be made — in the voters' hands," he said.
Acknowledging his respect for the supervisor, Blake has used McCowen's skepticism as a call to arms. "He's bet that we can't write a well-written proposal and an initiative that can get passed, and so we're going to take him up on the wager," he said at the launch party. But MHIC leaders have indicated they really hope to avoid a vote altogether and will urge the supervisors to take up the initiative themselves.
It's also worth noting that the timing of the November election could play a decisive role in deciding the initiative's fate. November is trim season, and that means an influx of potentially pro-initiative voters. Staff at the Mendocino County Clerk's office confirmed that these individuals, so-called "trimmigrants," will be eligible to vote in the county elections if they are American citizens and register in time. This could tip the ballot box in favor of the MHIC initiative. At the very least, it has the potential to make for an unusually intense election season in Mendocino County.
Kate Maxwell contributed to this report.
Adrian Fernandez Baumann is a freelance journalist and producer based in Los Angeles. He has reported for CNN, Businessweek, the East Bay Express and the Willits News.