The California Cannabis Countdown: Calaveras County

Calaveras County cannabisUntil recently, the “Wild West” of U.S. cannabis lacked robust statewide regulations which left California cannabis companies subject to unclear rules and risk of federal shutdowns. The Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act (MMRSA) created these regulations, but ultimately left control in the hands of local cities and counties. At last count, California has 58 counties and 482 incorporated cities across the state, each with the option to create its own rules or ban marijuana altogether. In this California Cannabis Countdown series, we plan to cover who is banning, who is waiting, and who is embracing the change to legalize marijuana — permits, regulations, taxes and all. For each city and county, we’ll discuss its location, history with cannabis, current law, and proposed law to give you a clearer picture of where to locate your cannabis business, how to keep it legal, and what you will and won’t be allowed to do. Our last California Cannabis Countdown post was on Monterey County, and before that, the City of Emeryville.

Welcome to the California Cannabis Countdown.

Calaveras County has long been a popular spot in California for marijuana cultivation and over the past few months its popularity has only increased due to upcoming state licensure, pending local regulation, bans in nearby localities, as well as the sudden availability of new farm sites resulting from an unexpected natural disaster. The Calaveras County Board of Supervisors recently reacted to the County’s newfound popularity  for cannabis growing by adopting an urgency ordinance temporarily banning any new grows within the County. Now it may be up to the voters to decide the fate of cannabis cultivation in Calaveras.

Location. Calaveras County is located in Northern California east of the city of Sacramento and west of the city of South Lake Tahoe.  In a proposed marijuana ordinance, the County accurately stated that its “geographic and climatic conditions, which include dense forested areas with adequate precipitation and mild winters, provide conditions that are favorable to outdoor marijuana cultivation, allowing growers to achieve a high per-plant yield.”

History with CannabisOn February 14, 2005, Calaveras County added Chapter 17.91 to its code to regulate medical cannabis dispensaries through the issuance of administrative use permits. The code remained unchanged throughout the years as the County’s Board of Supervisors chose to wait until after the state of California adopted regulations prior to drafting a new medical marijuana ordinance.

California finally adopted statewide regulations on September 11, 2015, when it passed the MMRSA, and true to its word, Calaveras County’s Board met later that December and directed staff to draft a new ordinance to regulate medical cannabis cultivation and commerce. On January 26, 2016, four draft ordinances were presented to the Board as urgency measures to meet the original deadline under MMRSA, which required localities to adopt regulations by March 1, 2016. California legislators later eliminated the March 1 deadline in February of 2016 and consequently the Calaveras County Board held a special meeting on February 16, 2016 to receive further policy direction on the proposed ordinances.

During its February 16 meeting, the Board directed County Counsel to prepare a comprehensive ordinance to regulate medical cannabis cultivation and commerce and thus allow for regulated cannabis cultivation within Calaveras County for the first time in history. Following the Board’s announcement of its directive, the County reported experiencing: 1) an influx of people escaping new regulatory bans of medical cannabis cultivation in neighboring jurisdictions, and 2) an increase in already existing Calaveras County growers purchasing new or additional parcels to expand or improve on their cannabis cultivation sites. Both new and existing cannabis growers began purchasing and leasing real estate within the County at a rapid rate, in anticipation of the County’s new ordinance. In addition, the County’s sharp increase in new marijuana farms was due in part to the Butte Fire sweeping across the County in September of 2015 and destroying many existing marijuana farms.

In response to the growing number of marijuana farms, the County Board considered an urgency ordinance on April 12, 2016 to freeze cannabis cultivation limits at levels existing as of April 12. However, some longtime growers in Calaveras County argued the ordinance would be unfair to those impacted by the Butte Fire and forced to set up new cultivation sites after the April 12 effective date. In effect, these impacted cannabis growers would be treated the same as new growers and would thus be left out under the proposed ordinance. As a result, the Board ultimately rejected the ordinance.

Current LawUnder Chapter 17.91 of the County code, medical cannabis dispensaries in Calaveras County are required to obtain an administrative use permit from the Planning Department, which must be renewed on an annual basis and may only be located in the CP Professional Office zoning district. Dispensaries must also comply with certain operating restrictions listed under Chapter 17.91.050, which generally follow standard operating provisions that apply to medical cannabis dispensaries throughout California.

In response to the perceived problem surrounding the influx of new growers as well as the expansion of existing marijuana farms in the County, the County Board met again on May 10, 2016 to consider an urgency ordinance and this time it voted to temporarily ban the establishment of any new grows effective May 10, adding Chapter 17.95 to its code to regulate Medical Cannabis Cultivation and Commerce.

The newly adopted ordinance seeks to accomplish four primary goals:

  • Create a registration process for any current growers who wish to secure a future state license under MMRSA. Growers who do not register by the County deadline will have to wait to receive their local permits, which are required to apply for and obtain a state license.
  • Collect funds from grower registration fees which can be used for on-going inspection, staff review, and enforcement activities within the County. To register with the County, growers will be required to pay proposed fees of: $100 for personal use, $200 for caregivers, and $5000 for commercial cultivators. The County estimates that revenue collected from these fees will allow it to hire additional deputies, code enforcement officers, and department staff members. The proposed fee rates may be adjusted as the County determines the actual cost to implement its registration program.
  • Impose a rigorous set of standards for placement of cultivation sites, area of cultivation, and public health and safety. These include minimum parcel size, maximum cultivation area, setbacks, sanitation standards, provisions to limit light and noise, requirements to meet water quality standards, registering with the Board of Equalization to ensure payment of taxes, and background checks.
  • Allow for better regulated cultivation for growers operating prior to May 10, 2016, while also prohibiting expansion or new cultivation sites so as to halt any further environmental damage pending environmental review and development of a permanent marijuana ordinance. The County anticipates it could take up to a year to complete environmental studies required under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to adopt a permanent ordinance, and this delay spurred it to adopt a temporary ordinance to freeze current cultivation levels while the studies are being completed.

The County Planning Department is in the process of registering growers that were operating in the County on or before the May 10 effective date. The deadline for registering a pre-existing marijuana farm with the County is June 30, 2016. As of May 17, 2016, the County Planning Department reported that ten commercial cultivators and one individual grower had registered with the County.

Proposed LawThere are currently two-voter led initiatives in Calaveras County regarding commercial cannabis cultivation. One initiative seeks to provide robust regulations for commercial growers, while the other seeks to ban commercial cultivation completely but allow for personal cultivation by medical marijuana patients.

An initiative must obtain 1,571 valid signatures from registered Calaveras County voters by June 1, 2016 to be included on the ballot this November. Unlike an ordinance adopted by the Board of Supervisors, the voter initiatives are exempt from the CEQA and this means they need not wait for environmental studies to be completed and could lead to permanent marijuana regulations for Calaveras County growers by the end of this year. Signatures pages for both petitions were submitted by the June 1st deadline, however they were later rejected by the County because of “format errors.” The County is now allowing both initiatives additional time to correct the errors and submit the required signatures.

This will be a crucial year for growers located in Calaveras County who plan to apply for a California license in 2018. Whether it’s registering with the County by June 30, or voting at the polls in November, it’s time to get your act together.