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The Smell Test

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What's that smell? It's a question that apparently carries a lot less legal significance than it once did.

Up until recently in California, a whiff of the sticky icky was enough to give a police officer probable cause to search your vehicle or home. But Proposition 64 and the legalization of possession and cultivation of marijuana in California has rendered the so-called "smell test" obsolete.

To be sure, in this brave new legalized world, there is still such a thing as illegal weed — stuff that's grown, sold and possessed outside the regulatory framework set up by the state. It's just that it's going to be a lot harder to develop probable cause for a search as the mere scent of marijuana, in and of itself, is no longer evidence of illegal activity.

This new world raises new questions, like: Is the smell of a cannabis conflict as important as a conflict itself?

It's no secret that the Humboldt County Planning Division has been drowning in cannabis permit applications in the wake of the county's Dec. 31 deadline. In total, 2,337 applications came in from folks looking to either start up a cannabis business or make an existing one legit. Of all those applications, fewer than 90 were complete, meaning county planning staff has a whole lot of work to do with applicants, according to Planning Director John H. Ford.

Ford said the county has brought on six or seven "extra-help" staffers in the Cannabis Services Division since Jan. 1. One of those is Humboldt Cannabis Chamber of Commerce Board President and co-founder Allison Edrington, according to a Feb. 28 newsletter email blast from the chamber. It appears the advocate has become the bureaucrat, without actually changing out of her advocate shoes.

I asked Ford if this was an apparent conflict, having the head of an organization that advocates on behalf of cannabis businesses — it came out in opposition to the county's excise tax measure — work on permitting those same businesses.

"We have talked about that," Ford said. "We have struggled with it a little bit, in all honesty. But in the end, if she wants to focus her career objective on working as a planner within the planning department and providing the unbiased analysis that's required, I believe she can do that."

Edrington — a former Times-Standard reporter, who according to her chamber bio works as a media consultant for "businesses, farms and political causes" and has produced several cannabis events including the Golden Tarp Award — said she was looking for a full-time job when she saw the county was hiring planners. She said her mom was a planner in Glenn County, so the job appealed to her and she applied, got the job and is enjoying it.

But isn't that like if Greater Eureka Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Don Smullin was processing business licenses for the city? Or if Humboldt Builders Exchange Board President Kathy Rodriguez was working on building permits for the county?

Deputy Planning Director Bob Russell said it's important for people to remember that entry-level planners like Edrington "aren't making policy, they're implementing policy that's already been made." Russell said they go through long checklists to see if applications are complete or incomplete, in compliance with requirements or out of compliance. Sure, they exercise discretion, Russell said, but there are a whole lot of checks and balances. "Through the entire process, there's no way for one person to really let a bias get very far without it being called out," Russell said. Plus, he said, planners are expected to recuse themselves when an application touches too close to home — whether it involves a relative's property or, in Edrington's case, an application from a business that's paid the $175 annual membership to the Cannabis Chamber of Commerce.

Will the county at least take steps to keep Edrington from handling applications from businesses that have paid the $175 annual membership fee to her chamber? Apparently not. Ford said Humboldt County is small and if he barred planners from working on applications from people, projects or causes they are affiliated with, "nobody could work on anything." Besides, Ford said there are checks and balances in place and Edrington's work — like that of all planners — will be supervised.

Nothing to smell here. Move along.

When, in one of his first acts as U.S. Attorney General, Jeff Sessions rescinded a federal directive to allow transgender students to use whatever bathrooms correspond with their gender identity, the administration's talking point was clear: This is a states' rights issue.

So that would obviously extend to other issues, too, right? Like, say, marijuana laws? Apparently, no.

Speaking at the National Association of Attorneys General on Feb. 28, Sessions hinted at a looming federal cannabis crackdown. "States, they can pass the laws they choose," he told the assembly. "I would just say, it does remain a violation of federal law to distribute marijuana throughout any place in the United States, whether a state legalizes it or not."

What's that smell? That, my friends, is the smell of hypocrisy.

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