After a long and circuitous discussion rife with questions and hypotheticals, the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors today approved a land use ordinance aimed at governing all current and future medical marijuana dispensaries in the county’s unincorporated regions. The unanimous vote stands to open the door to as many as 15 dispensaries countywide, not counting the ones located in incorporated cities such as Eureka and Arcata.

In the same fell swoop the board asked county staff to prepare a request for qualifications (RFQ) from aspiring dispensary owners. That RFQ will be presented at the same time the existing moratorium on dispensaries is lifted. That ban has been in place for the past four years, much to the frustration of those hoping to set up shop.

While the move pleased the organizers behind Hummingbird Healing Center and Lost Coast Botanical, two dispensaries long waiting for the stamp of legitimacy, the board’s vote occurred over the ardent objections of Luke Bruner, business manager at Garberville’s Wonderland Nursery, one of just two dispensaries in the county established before the moratorium went into place.

Bruner argued — passionately and at length — that if the ordinance passed, Wonderland  and the Humboldt Patient Resource Center Humboldt County Collective in Eureka’s Myrtletown neighborhood would be deemed ineligible for a state license under Assembly Bill 266, which is currently being considered in the legislature. The state bill sets a cutoff of July 15, 2015. Dispensaries established after that date would not be allowed to apply for the license, Bruner said. Over the course of the afternoon Bruner offered more grounds for objection. For example, he suggested that banning convicted felons from obtaining permits could run afoul of principle of disparate impact to minorities and invoke the ire of the NAACP.

Bruner also warned that the ordinance would allow mega-corporations to move in and exploit local resources. And he argued that, from a purely legal standpoint, the board had changed the text of the ordinance so much that it ought to be sent back to the Planning Commission before any action was taken.

“One of the people who does not get one of these permits is going to sue you, and they’re going to win,” Bruner cautioned.

But county staff disagreed. County Counsel Jeffrey Blanck said none of the changes made were significant enough to warrant reconsideration by the Planning Commission, even though the commission last looked at the document four years ago. 

The discussion among supervisors focused on a few key sticking points. Namely, whether or not to establish a cap on the total number of permits issued (they decided yes and set the number at 15, to be distributed evenly among north, central and southern areas of the county); whether to prohibit felons from owning or working at dispensaries (they decided only owners would be so prohibited, and only if the felony occurred within the past five years); and what elements should be included in the request for qualifications.

On that last question the board was particularly interested in maintaining local control to the extent possible. In other words, they wanted to make it difficult for large corporations to obtain permits. Blanck cautioned that, in the wake of Citizens United, corporations have to be treated like people. But he said it is possible to craft language giving preference to local applicants.

Staff will now move forward to craft the RFQ. The resolution passed today was originally scheduled to take effect 30 days from its passage (except in the Coastal Zone, where passage must await certification from the California Coastal Commission). But in the motion put forward by Supervisor Mark Lovelace, he called for the effective date to be concurrent with both the RFQ and the rescission of the countywide dispensary ban.

The vote earned applause from at least one spectator, but Bruner left the chambers worried about the future of his business. With AB 266 still before the state legislature, and the prospect of full legalization on the horizon, everyone in attendance agreed that the ground under today’s regulations is shifting fast.

ADDENDUM: Bruner, seeking to avoid confusion, submitted the following statement to the Outpost

Wonderland is fully supportive of this ordinance, and looks forward to collaborating in fixing problems with AB 266. The supervisors did a great job today. They’ve tackled a tough issue and done it well.  The solution to the felony issue shows courage and wisdom. The same is true of the RFQ solution.  They really understand the concerns of a corporate takeover and the RFQ is the right solution that takes the issue head on. The provisional license language is a big deal. Sacramento understands that the answers are found in Humboldt County, and with the leadership our Supervisors have demonstrated on cannabis, I am confident we will get it right there too! #Sameteam