California Assemblyman Jim Wood.

Before sitting down for lunch at Humboldt Smokehouse, California Assemblymember Jim Wood had achieved a personal eating first: That morning he’d consumed his first breakfast oyster, pulled fresh (read: “raw”) from the Bay and consumed on a boat.

Asked if he enjoys the briny bivalves, Wood was diplomatic. “You know? It’s becoming an acquired taste,” he said. “Oysters at 8 o’clock in the morning is a little different. But hey, you know, what the heck?” 

Wood and State Senator Mike McGuire — vice chair and chair, respectively, of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Fisheries — had been out on Humboldt Bay for an up-close look at its aquaculture. They were joined by members of the California Aquaculture Association, Humboldt Bay Harbor District, the California Department of Fish & Wildlife and a California Fish & Game Commissioner.

But Wood has spent much more time this year crafting and pushing his Marijuana Watershed Protection Act (AB 243), which aims to regulate the environmental and water impacts of indoor and outdoor medical marijuana growing operations statewide. It’s been a challenge. While most bills get referred to just one policy committee before being heard on the floor, Wood’s bill was double-referred in both houses. In the Assembly it faced the Agricultural Committee and the Environmental Safety and Toxics Committee, clearing both. The bill has also cleared the Senate Governance and Finance Committee and the Senate Environmental Quality Committee. When the Legislature reconvenes on Aug. 17 for the final month of this legislative session it will face the Senate Appropriations Committee before facing a vote from the full Senate.

Why so much scrutiny? 

“I think they just didn’t know what to do with me, quite frankly,” Wood said. Throughout the process the bill has changed numerous times. Most recently, after conferring with various industry stakeholders, Wood nixed his plans for an excise tax assessed per plant and replaced it with an excise tax based on the weight of processed cannabis at the time of sales.

“If I have learned nothing [else], it is incredibly important to engage with stakeholders and to listen and learn, because it’s an industry that I didn’t know a lot about,” Wood said. “At this point, the more I learn the more I know I need to learn.”

Under the new provisions the state Board of Equalization would assess the tax based on its own measurements. “And I’m not really sure at this point how the collection of all that would go,” Wood said. “But we’re trying to be reasonable. I firmly believe that if you heavily tax and heavily regulate this industry from the very beginning it’s going to be a nightmare.”

The sentiment echoes the position put forth in the recent Blue Ribbon Commission Report on Marijuana Policy. Led by Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom, the panel concluded, among other things, that overregulation and steep taxes would only serve to allow the black market to continue thriving. Wood said it was Newsom’s visit to Humboldt County in May that informed that particular conclusion. 

Wood said he learned a lot about the challenges facing marijuana regulation while on the campaign trail last year. He heard concerns about the environment, law enforcement and financing clean-up efforts. Once elected, Wood said, he was inspired by Gov. Jerry Brown’s creation of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife Watershed Enforcement Team, which used high-resolution aerial images to estimate the number of marijuana plants being grown in various Humboldt and Mendocino County watersheds. 

The team published a report, which can be read here, back in March.

Working with that team and with the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, which set up a voluntary permitting system, Wood said he figured out the approach he wanted to take. “I understood they were trying to create a pathway for people who really want to come into compliance to do it,” he said. “So it’s a carrot instead of the stick. That appealed to me because the stick hasn’t worked, quite frankly.”

Wood crafted his bill with this positive reinforcement in mind. “And immediately I started to get support from the environmental community, and that was really heartening because the environmental community really has not weighed in on cannabis at all. So it was great to have them begin to actually weigh in.”

But before getting too deep into the drafting process Wood realized that in order for regulation to be sustainable long-term the bill would need to include a revenue component — a way to bring in money to fund enforcement. Ultimately that meant proposing a new tax.

“We tried to look at every angle and language to see if we could do this without it being considered a tax, but all the attorneys say, ‘No, it’s a tax,’” Wood recalled.

As advocated locally by California Cannabis Voice-Humboldt (CCVH), cannabis would be considered agriculture under Wood’s bill. He said this would offer a shortcut to developing enforcement measures. 

“If you’re a farmer and you’re farming vegetables or grapes or timber, you’re subject to a lot of different regulations around water, wastewater, pesticide use — all of those things. Yet with cannabis we have applied none of that. So it actually makes perfect sense to drop this into a regulatory framework that already exists.”

In its current form the bill would generate, conservatively, $59 million per year, according to an estimate from the Board of Equalization. Wood said 10 percent of those resources would go toward program administration, which would involve a two-tiered permitting process. Cultivators would require both a local permit, through counties and cities, and a state permit from the California Department of Food and Agriculture. 

“I’m a big proponent of local control,” Wood said. “Nobody knows land use issues better than local jurisdictions.”

Meanwhile, 30 percent of revenues would supply permanent funding to the Watershed Enforcement Team; another 30 percent would go to law enforcement; and the final 30 percent would finance environmental cleanup through a grant program. 

“My vision is it would go to the neediest areas first,” Wood said. “It could be local government that applies; it could be nonprofits, a variety of different kinds of people. But I also want there to be resources for public land and private land, because there are people who are trespassed upon who may not have the resources to clean it up.”

Wood said he’s not certain that his bill will make it out of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Nor is he sure that it would get the two-thirds support required for a bill that includes a tax. (That would require some Republican support.) And if it clears that hurdle, the bill would have to go back to the Assembly for concurrence because it has changed substantially since that chamber voted to approve it.

“I also need to know that the governor is comfortable with a tax, and he hasn’t weighed in yet,” Wood said. Regardless of these significant obstacles, he remains hopeful about the bill’s chances. Just the fact that the legislature is taking it seriously is progress.

“For so many people, they either say ‘marijuana’ and they sort of chuckle or they just don’t want to talk about it,” Wood said. “If nothing else I think this year in the legislature there is more conversation around the subject, and it’s substantive. Even if my bill isn’t successful I think we’ve accomplished a lot getting people talking about it.”

Before Wood departed for his next appointment we asked him about a bill he co-authored that would increase the age at which you could buy and consume tobacco products from 18 to 21. Wood joked about raising the ire of Outpost commenters with this particular legislation, but he explained that he’s motivated by his history as a dentist. 

Ninety percent of adult smokers started before they turned 21, Wood pointed out, adding that 90 percent of long-term smokers say they wish they’d never started. In Humboldt County, nearly 18 percent of adults are smokers, according to the most recent report from the California Department of Public Health. That’s well above the statewide average of 13.8 percent.

“If we knew there was some causative agent for breast cancer we would be working hard to remove it from the environment,” Wood reasoned. “Yet we know that smoking causes heart disease and emphysema, and it causes gum disease and tooth loss and oral cancer, all of these things. And yet we haven’t really done a lot, in my opinion, to keep people from starting earlier.”

The bill passed in the Senate in June and now faces a vote in the Assembly. If it passes, California would be among the first states in the nation to raise the smoking age from 18 to 21. (Hawaii became the first in June.)

Wood went back to Sacramento shortly after this meeting. The day before he’d been in Del Norte County.

“At times I’m really envious of my colleagues who have a district they can get across in 20 minutes,” Wood said. “It takes me six and a half hours to get from one end to the other. But on the other hand, I don’t think there’s anyone in California who gets to represent a more beautiful district than this one. That’s the tradeoff, and I’ll take that 100 days out of 100.”