The California Cannabis Countdown: Monterey County

Monterey County Cannabis

Until 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 first California Cannabis Countdown post was on The City of Emeryville.

Welcome to the California Cannabis Countdown.

Monterey County enacted a temporary ban on new medical marijuana businesses back in July of 2015, before the MMRSA and its (now repealed) March 1st deadline had California cities and counties scrambling to enact local marijuana ordinances. However, the county never intended to ban medical marijuana outright, but only to provide time to study the effects of cannabis on its communities and draft proper regulations. The county has since twice extended its temporary ban to allow additional time to refine its permanent medical marijuana regulations.  The county’s draft ordinances allow for up to a total of 155 permitted marijuana businesses within the unincorporated areas of Monterey County encompassing dispensaries, indoor cultivation, non-volatile manufacturing, testing and transportation/distribution businesses. Yet these businesses may have to wait until February 27, 2017, when the temporary ban is currently set to expire.

LocationMonterey County is located on the Pacific coast and is world-renowned for its scenic coastline, which includes Big Sur, State Route 1, and the 17 Mile Drive. It is home to several protected areas and endangered species and its economy is primarily based on tourism and agriculture.  The Monterey County associate planner has expressed his belief that the demand to allow for cannabis cultivation is due to the county’s climate, soils, and land.

History with Cannabis. On July 7, 2015, the Monterey County Board of Supervisors adopted Interim Urgency Ordinance No. 5254 which placed a temporary ban on any new medical marijuana cultivation and dispensaries for a 45-day period, ending August 21, 2015.  The county adopted the ordinance based on its finding that “there is a current and immediate threat to public health, safety and welfare associated with the collective cultivation, processing, and dispensing of medical marijuana in the absence of specific County land use regulation” and that the temporary ban was necessary so the county could study and develop appropriate regulations consistent with state law. The ban did, however, include a few exemptions for patients and caregivers as well as cultivation and dispensaries operating in compliance prior to July 7, 2015.

On July 28, 2015, the county extended the Interim Urgency Ordinance for 10 months and 15 days through July 5, 2016 (Interim Ordinance No. 5256). Since then, the county has been working on drafting permanent medical marijuana regulations and had originally planned to adopt a permanent ordinance by the July 5, 2016 deadline.

However, on February 26, 2016, the county once again extended the Interim Urgency Ordinance for an additional 12 months through February 27, 2017, to allow for additional time to craft its final ordinances, in part due to the state’s enactment of the MMRSA in September 2015. At this time, the county also added an additional exemption to allow for greenhouses and indoor cultivation sites existing as of July 7, 2015 to apply for local permits.

Current Law. As Interim Urgency Ordinance No. 5254 has been extended through 2017, it remains the current medical marijuana law in Monterey County, and it provides as follows:

A. Prohibition on collective or cooperative cultivation: The collective or cooperative cultivation of medical marijuana is prohibited. The County shall not permit or allow, or process applications for land use entitlements for, the use of real property for collective or cooperative cultivation of marijuana for medical purposes.

B. Prohibition on medical marijuana dispensaries: Medical marijuana dispensaries are prohibited. The County shall not permit or allow, or process land use entitlements for, the use of real property for a medical marijuana dispensary.

C. These regulations apply during the term of this interim ordinance and any duly adopted extension of this interim ordinance, unless a specific exemption under this ordinance is applicable.

Exemptions from prohibition include:

  • Qualified patients, patients with identification cards, and primary caregivers who cultivate plants within the limits of Health & Safety Code 11362.77
  • Cultivation commenced with all required County approvals and land use permits obtained or applied for prior to July 7, 2015
  • Dispensaries operating with all required County approvals and land use permits obtained prior to July 7, 2015
  • Cultivation in greenhouses or indoor cultivation sites that had made substantial progress toward cultivation prior to July 7, 2015 may apply for County permits under existing County regulations

Proposed Law. Monterey County is still in the process of refining its medical marijuana ordinances. The county currently has three draft ordinances to regulate medical marijuana, which were recently subject to public comment.

The first ordinance amends zoning regulations (Title 20-Coastal and Title 21-Inland) to allow for medical marijuana businesses in specific zoning districts but requires a Use Permit, except for personal cultivation which is allowed in amounts up to 100 square feet in all zones. The ordinance allows for a maximum of 15 dispensaries, 100 commercial indoor and mixed light cultivation sites, 15 non-volatile cannabis manufacturing facilities, 2 cannabis testing facilities, and 5 commercial cannabis transportation or distribution facilities in specified zones with a Use Permit.  However, the ordinance does not allow for outdoor commercial cultivation or manufacturing with volatile substances in any areas within Monterey County. The County will consider amending the limitations on each type of medical marijuana business within two years of the adoption of the ordinance or by the end of 2018, whichever is earlier.

The second ordinance requires an annual business permit to operate any type of commercial medical cannabis business within Monterey County, in addition to a state license, local land use permit, and local business license. It outlines the process of applying for and renewing a permit as well as the operating requirements of each permit holder which includes allowing unannounced inspections by any appropriate county official.

The third ordinance establishes a new business license requirement for commercial cannabis businesses operating within Monterey County. The business license would be a final step in the permitting processes that ensures that all required permits, licenses, and entitlements have been obtained. It would also create a register of medical marijuana businesses permitted to operate within the county.

Over the past few months, Monterey County has been holding community meetings for public comments on its draft ordinances and held its third and final meeting on March 17, 2016. During those meetings, public requests included that outdoor cultivation also be permitted and that cultivation in general be expanded to different zoning districts. The public also expressed concerns that the maximum limits imposed on commercial cannabis permits were too low considering the estimated 200 to 250 medical marijuana businesses currently operating in Monterey County. The current ordinances also restrict marijuana delivery services to only permitted dispensaries and cultivation to already existing greenhouses, warehouses, and agricultural processing facilities.

We can expect these issues and others to be included in the report that will be presented to the Monterey County City Council on March 30, 2016.  Until then, we will have to wait to see whether the county will address these concerns and how they may change the language of the final ordinances. And we may be waiting much longer to see those final ordinances, as Monterey County has given itself ample time through February 2017 to refine it regulations, unless of course it decides once again to extend its temporary ban.