George Boardman: Nevada County’s supervisors cede leadership to sheriff on medical marijuana
Observations from the center stripe: Reality edition
IF THE backers of the State of Jefferson are struggling to get enough signatures to force a public vote on the issue in Nevada County, what makes them think they have any chance of winning?… IT’S IMPRESSIVE that Truckee was named Ski Town of the Year in 2015 in a media-driven poll, particularly when you consider Truckee had practically no snow last year… BIG OAK Valley is known in pot growing circles as “Big Dope Valley” and “Big Grow Valley,” according to the sheriff. That should do wonders for property values… GIVEN THE size of our alleged illegal marijuana problems, I find it strange that sheriffs’ deputies seized just $118,000 in cash last year… NEW REAL estate code word: If a parcel is advertised as “215 friendly,” that means you can grow pot there with few hassles… DID THEY spell the name right?: Nevada County has been featured in High Times magazine as a good place to grow pot, according to the sheriff’s office…
If you view last week’s Board of Supervisors meeting as the campaign kickoff for passage of a ban on all outdoor cultivation of marijuana in Nevada County then you’ll understand why four of the five supervisors were in no mood to compromise on the issue. Opponents of Sheriff Keith Royal’s proposal to ban all outdoor cultivation of marijuana and restrict indoor growing to 12 plants spent more than five hours pleading with the supervisors to find a middle ground on the contentious issue.
But in the end, the supes voted 4-1 to rubber stamp the sheriff’s proposal less than a week after they received the recommendation. Apparently there wasn’t time for county counsel to vet the measures, and the proposal for a public vote on the “emergency” ordinance may have to be done over.
This little drama started unfolding in October when Royal revealed that several supervisors had expressed an interest in revisiting the issue of marijuana cultivation to “more accurately regulate what’s occurring … At this point, I can’t tell you what we’re going to do or where we’ll go,” he said. “In the early part of next year we’ll explore what actions may be pursued … In my opinion, it’s out of control.”
To make sure everybody understood his position, Royal called for an outright ban (“it’s just my opinion”) in early December and announced later he would make a recommendation to the supervisors this month on the cultivation of pot in the county. Nobody needed a GPS device to know where this was headed.
There are a couple of forces at work that compel the supervisors to take up the issue now. The Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act became law last year, establishing a statewide system for regulating and taxing medical pot. Counties and cities have until March 1 to decide how they want to regulate the growing and distribution of medical pot, or the state will do it for them.
It is also likely that at least one initiative legalizing recreational use of pot in California will be on the November ballot. If it passes, the national pot market for legal medical or recreational use is expected to double to at least $5.4 billion.
To ensure the county isn’t swept up in pot euphoria, Royal rolled out an extensive dog-and-pony show at the hearing to illustrate the horrors of marijuana cultivation run rampant, and the fact that we have some bad parents in Nevada County. The only things the presentation lacked were a representative from an animal abuse organization and a few highlights from “Reefer Madness.”
Only one of Royal’s witnesses made a passing reference to the benefits of medical marijuana, but numerous residents of the county testified during the hearing about the medicinal benefits of the weed. Resident Forrest Hurd was particularly moving when he described how pot has reduced his son’s 500 seizures a month by 90 percent.
Then there is the economic argument. While nobody in a position of authority has ever made an attempt to quantify the amount of money pot generates in Nevada County, a Cornell University graduate student spent two years studying its impact on the county.
The student, Sara Keene, estimated last January that pot’s economic impact could range from an average of $416 million to $2.5 billion annually. “The (marijuana) industry contributes a lot to the local economy,” she said. “The county should be having more of a dialogue.”
Patricia Smith, chair of the Nevada County chapter of Americans for Safe Access, told The Union before last week’s hearing that an outright ban would only push the marijuana industry into the shadows, and local governments would receive no tax revenue from it. “It’s throwing money away,” she said. “Literally hundreds of thousands of dollars will be flowing down the hill.”
Others pleaded with the supervisors to work with all parties to find a compromise everybody can live with. “Let’s sit down and work together,” said self-described cannabis grower Harry Bennett. “We can find something that’s right for our community and live happily ever after.”
Supervisor Richard Anderson, the only supervisor to vote no, endorsed that sentiment. “Bring in the HOAs, the growers and the public and consider their wisdom,” he said. “Let’s try and reach a middle ground.” But his fellow supervisors weren’t interested in a compromise. After all, as Royal pointed out: “It’s the complaints that you (the supervisors) have brought to me that brought us here today.”
To be fair, there are legitimate reasons to put more restrictions on marijuana cultivation. People who live down wind of grows don’t appreciate the smell, bad actors steal water and do significant damage to the environment, and the growing popularity of honey oil labs means a resident could have the equivalent of a suicide bomber living next door. Advocates of medical pot say none of this applies to them; they try to live within the law. County voters will get a chance to bless or reject the ordinance in the June primary election. “I think it’s the only fair thing to do,” Royal said. Backers of the measure remember the overwhelming rejection of Measure S in November 2014 and are confident that sentiment will carry over to the June vote.
But prohibition never worked with alcohol and it won’t work with marijuana, particularly if California voters legalize recreational pot. The supervisors have chosen a path that will drive the bad actors underground, leave some people who can truly benefit from medical pot high and dry, and forfeit the opportunity to regulate and tax pot. Our elected leaders decided to forego the heavy lifting involved in finding a compromise, and ceded the leadership role on this issue to the sheriff. We should expect the supervisors to live with the consequences of their decision.
George Boardman lives at Lake of the Pines. His column is published Mondays by The Union.
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