Cannabis Permitting Program Issues Addressed at July 22 Meeting

About 60 people showed up at the Beginnings Octagon in Briceland Friday for the latest public meeting aimed at providing cannabis farmers with information related to county and state permitting programs that are either already in place or will be soon.
Sponsored by the Civil Liberties Monitoring Project, the meeting was facilitated by Humboldt County Supervisor Estelle Fennell.
Also on hand was Undersheriff William Honsal, second in command at the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office; Senior Planner Steve Lazar, one of four staff members in the county’s newly created Cannabis Services Division; Adona White, a water resources control engineer with the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board; and Jane Arnold of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“We’re in an unprecedented time right now. We have marijuana cultivators coming into compliance with state and local laws,” Honsal declared in his introductory remarks.
He stressed the importance of “working together” so that farmers come into line with the new rules and don’t end up on the wrong side of the law. And in an acknowledgement that marijuana is still not fully legal in the state, he vowed that “people who’ve applied [to the permitting programs] don’t have to fear as long as they are abiding by environmental laws and ordinances.”
Fennell summed things up this way: “After decades of [having] an underground industry, in the course of a couple of years a whole bunch of agencies are tasked with the regulation of cannabis. At the same time, a number of growers want to become legal and there are a tremendous number engaged in the green rush who profess to be legal” but haven’t actually come in and applied.
Either way, Fennell made clear that regulation is coming and that it will require “interfacing with numerous agencies” on a variety of issues, such as water storage, land grading, building permits — even, in some cases, archaeological surveys.
The new permitting programs include one launched by the regional water board last year that’s intended to protect water quality from the impacts of marijuana cultivation. Humboldt County’s commercial medical marijuana program, meantime, kicked in this past February. Its main features include land use regulations and a permitting system governing cultivation, processing and manufacturing for both new and existing operations.
The county’s program dovetails with a statewide licensing program slated to start up in 2018. That program was created by the Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act, which the State Legislature approved last year.
Further complicating the picture is Proposition 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, a statewide ballot measure coming before voters in November that would control, regulate and tax the adult use of marijuana. Should it pass, cannabis in California would finally become legal not just for medical purposes but for recreational use as well.
What the emerging regulatory regime means in a nutshell is that anyone wishing to run a cannabis operation in California must hold both a local and a state license. 
One issue that came up during Friday’s meeting was the need under the water board’s program to ensure that cannabis-related activity doesn’t degrade water quality — particularly in terms of increasing sediment inputs.
But as more than one person in the audience argued, the reason streams on the North Coast are clogged with sediment isn’t just because of marijuana grows. It’s also because of damage done to the landscape by past logging practices.
Expecting marijuana growers to fix those sorts of problems to become licensed is “outrageous,” one audience member, Gil Gregori, asserted.
“The state allowed the degradation to take place. The state should fix it,” Gregori declared to applause.
White of the water board said that a lot of the sediment delivery that her agency is concerned about is due to “recent grading [connected to marijuana operations] and not so much to legacy [past logging] impacts.”
“It is more recent grading activities that are the top priority,” she said.
White also pointed out that when someone buys a property that has a leaking underground storage tank on it, “it’s the buyer’s responsibility to fix the problem.”
“Dirt is a pollutant. And we’re treating it the same way” as substances leaked from underground storage tanks, she said.
In terms of shoring up damage from past logging, White said that property owners would be “given a longer time frame to fix those features.” She also said that property owners that are in the same watershed and facing similar erosion problems stand a better chance of obtaining grant money if they band together.
“The main thing is to identify problems and be able to come up with a strategy to fix them,” she told the crowd.
Gregori, in response, said that watershed groups have been working for years to undo the damage done to the land by the logging industry — damage, he emphasized again, that the state allowed to take place. And he expressed skepticism that there is any more grant money available now than there has been in the past to fix things.
Grant money “won’t come close,” he said.
Fennel pointed out that a cannabis excise tax is coming before voters in November. If approved, she said the resulting revenue — or at least a portion of it — would go toward environmental remediation.
“So the answer is yes, there will be money available for environmental cleanup,” she told the room.
On another matter, audience members expressed skepticism that the county and state have sufficient manpower to enforce the new regulatory system.
“Lots of these issues devolve to enforcement. It’s the weak part of the whole regulation program,” commented Robert “Woods” Sutherland, of the Humboldt Mendocino Marijuana Advocacy Project, or HUMMAP.
“Complaints have been filed [with the Sheriff’s Office] and ignored. The water board has concentrated only on certain watersheds. And Fish and Wildlife has sent out letters. The whole issue of enforcement is one that you need to take more seriously than you are,” he said pointedly.
“People are good at staying out of compliance around here. You need to rein in the people who are out of compliance so it’s not so expensive for the people in compliance,” chimed in another person in the crowd.
Others didn’t specifically complain about a lack of compliance. Instead, they talked about chronic problems that have long gone unaddressed — like light and noise pollution from grow operations.
The response from the panelists was that taxation along with fees imposed by the new regulatory structure will make it possible for agencies to beef up their manpower. 
“We are understaffed,” conceded Lazar of the planning department. “Hopefully, with taxation [that will improve].” Arnold of Fish and Wildlife said that her agency is “getting more staff to deal with [illegal] water diversions.” And White said that thanks to money coming in from permit fees the water board is also hiring.
“We’re forming a dedicated enforcement unit [to regulate cannabis]. It takes time. But it’s going to get better,” White promised.
She urged people to come forward with specific complaints about specific activities. “Partner with us to let us know where we can focus our resources,” she urged.
“If you take pictures and [provide] names, if you become a police helper” it will help with enforcement, added Honsal, who gave out the number to an anonymous tip line. “I need APN numbers and license plate numbers if you have them.”
“It’s complaint-driven,” he went on, referring to the enforcement process. “We need people to tell us [about a possible violation]. If there’s a huge grow that’s stealing water, don’t just tell your neighbors.”
Honsal did not downplay the enforcement challenge. While he said that the Sheriff’s Office “has more deputies than ever before” assigned to cannabis, it’s still not as many as there could be. “I’d like to have 15 to 20 deputies. Instead, I have five deputies dedicated to this and 8,000 grows.”
To cope, Honsal said the Sheriff’s Office relies on flyovers of the landscape to identify the “most egregious” operations.
In response to a question regarding whether the county’s ordinance favors large-scale grows, Fennell responded in the negative. Among other things, she said large grows “have more hoops to jump through than smaller grows.”
This was confirmed by Lazar. “The bigger the grow, the more logistics people will be facing,” he remarked.
Fennell responded positively to another suggestion: That Humboldt County open an office in Southern Humboldt to help people get compliant with the new rules.
“In the old days when the county was better off, there was a planning department office in Garberville,” she recalled. “I always thought it would be good if Humboldt County could have an office down here, but the money was not there.”
What with the new fees that are coming on line now, however, Fennell indicated that the situation has changed. “Maybe it makes sense to have a satellite office open one to two days a week. I will bring it forward at the county level because I think it would pencil out.”
“If I talk my colleagues into it, I hope people will come in. I will go out on a limb [on this],” she promised the crowd.
Fennell’s vow underscored the hope of regulators at both the county and state level that significant numbers of people will come forward and get legal of their own accord rather than being forced.
Lazar expressed the need for cooperation — as well as the reality that the new regulatory regime won’t change things overnight — this way: “If you think [the county] ordinance represents that tomorrow all will be perfect, [think again],” he said. “Instead, it represents turning the boat around. It won’t necessarily happen this season. It will happen incrementally, by people coming on board.”
“We need you to contact us.”