Dozens of cannabis farmers and allied community members gathered in the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors Chambers on Tuesday morning to speak out against the Humboldt Cannabis Reform Initiative, a controversial ballot measure that would restrict commercial cannabis cultivation across the county.
Proponents of the initiative believe the added restrictions will promote small-scale farming and environmentally responsible cannabis cultivation practices across the county while simultaneously cracking down on water-guzzling mega-grows. However, many local cannabis farmers fear the ballot initiative would decimate their livelihoods and destroy what is left of Humboldt County’s storied cannabis industry.
Members of the board and county staff have met with the organizers of the initiative in recent months to try to find an alternative solution to the ballot measure but the sponsors feel they are “morally obligated” to put the matter before voters.
During Tuesday’s meeting, the board reviewed two separate items relating to the initiative: a report from an ad hoc committee set up to work with the initiative’s sponsors, and an amended analysis of the initiative from staff.
Ad Hoc Committee Report
Earlier this year, the Board of Supervisors agreed to form an ad hoc committee, with Fourth District Supervisor Natalie Arroyo and Second District Supervisor Michelle Bushnell as the board appointees, to work with the sponsors of the Humboldt Cannabis Reform Initiative to either modify existing county rules or find an alternative to the ballot measure to address their concerns.
The ad hoc committee met on three occasions and while the meetings were “fruitful,” according to Planning and Building Director John Ford, the initiative’s sponsors ultimately felt the matter should be determined by the electorate.
Arroyo agreed with Ford’s summary, adding that the meetings helped her understand where the proponents of the initiative were coming from, “but it was pretty clear that the proponents of the initiative really wanted to ensure that that this item went to the voters and that an ordinance update would not satisfy their concerns.”
“They wanted something that was really codified in a different way by the voters of the county,” Arroyo continued. “We talked about, you know, the narrow range of options, given that perspective and I think … we’re sort of at a temporary stopping point. Depending on what happens in the future, we may be able to meet again and … have a starting point for a productive conversation.”
The initiative’s sponsors, Elizabeth “Betsy” Watson and Mark Thurmond, largely agreed that the ad hoc committee’s conversations were productive but maintained that county staff and the Board of Supervisors “didn’t really have a good understanding of the initiative,” according to Watson.
“We were not interested in withdrawing the initiative because the purpose and the intention of the initiative are valid,” she continued. “The fact that it cannot be changed – except by vote of the people – is positive because it puts limits on cannabis cultivation that our elected officials are not willing to do. … The initiative prevents a future Board of Supervisors from weakening the essential protections while offering flexibility to support the initiative’s purposes and intent, which is clearly stated.”
Thurmond felt the main objective of the ad hoc committee was to get the initiative’s sponsors to roll over and withdraw the ballot measure in exchange for changes to the Commercial Cannabis Land Use Ordinance, also known as “Ordinance 2.0.”
“[T]he committee acknowledged that any change made to an ordinance today could readily be undone next week or next year depending on the makeup and the mood of the board,” he said. “Thus there’s no guarantee that any agreed-upon language actually would survive more than a year, if that.”
Thurmond emphasized that the main reason the sponsors refused to withdraw the initiative was their “moral obligation” to the “7,000-plus registered voters” who signed the petition to put the measure on the ballot. “They were not told that we might consider brokering a deal or negotiating in some way to not represent the initiative that they signed on,” he said. “We have an obligation to honor the agreement made by those 7,000 citizens.”
Before moving ahead to the public comment portion of the discussion, Fifth District Supervisor and Board Chair Steve Madrone reminded the audience that comments should remain focused on the ad hoc committee’s report rather than the merits of the initiative.
Thomas Mulder, Southern Humboldt cannabis farmer and county planning commissioner, felt as though the ad hoc committee was a “waste of taxpayers’ dollars” and asked the board to refrain from meeting with the initiative’s sponsors in the future. “All these people are trying to do is waste taxpayer dollars,” he said. “Obviously, they don’t want to negotiate. … When this initiative fails, I hope you guys can [sue] them because they’ve wasted so many dollars in this county.”
Natalynne DeLapp, executive director of the Humboldt County Growers Alliance (HCGA), criticized the initiative’s sponsors for failing to do their due diligence and properly inform the public about the potential impacts associated with the initiative. “The [initiative’s] proponents skipped those steps because they were rushing to get enough signatures on the November 2022 ballot.”
“The proponents of the [initiative] never shared the final policy document with the public before it was submitted to the elections office, at which time it could never be changed,” DeLapp said. “When HCGA reviewed the document, we found that 12 of the 13 policies within the document targeted existing small, legal cannabis farmers. … [The document] creates an entirely new section for the county General Plan, one that can only be changed by a future vote of the people.”
Kneeland resident Cheryl Furman, on the other hand, generally spoke in favor of the initiative, noting that she is one of the “7,000-plus people that signed the petition.”
“I believe that this initiative is pretty important … because it would stop cannabis cultivation expansions and it would require wider neighborhood involvement,” she said. “There are many more cars and trucks that are driven by workers and employees at all hours of the night … Meanwhile, these expansions continue to be approved by the planning commission. … This initiative offers much-needed reform for cannabis cultivation in Humboldt County.”
Another speaker, who chose not to identify himself, said he was alarmed by local media coverage of the initiative and decided to read it himself. After doing so, he felt the initiative proposed the appropriate steps to “protect the county’s residents and natural environment from harm caused by large-scale cannabis cultivation.”
First District Supervisor Rex Bohn lamented the fact that the ad hoc committee was not able to resolve the sponsors’ concerns. “I’m sorry, we’re at this point,” he said. “I wish we could have a kumbaya moment. I appreciate the ad hoc that worked on it. A lot of time was spent to get nowhere.”
Bohn added that he would have felt “much more comfortable” with the proposed initiative “if I could get one small cannabis farmer to call me and say, ‘This is going to save me.’”
After a bit of additional discussion from the board, Bushnell made a motion to accept the report and pause the ad hoc committee meetings for the time being.
Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson offered a second to the motion, noting that he voted against Ordinance 2.0 “because it didn’t go far enough from an environmental perspective.” “I believe there is intent around environmental issues that we need to address but I do have concerns about the construct of the initiative process,” he said.
The motion passed in a unanimous 5-0 vote.
Amended Analysis of the Initiative
The board also reviewed – and ultimately approved – an amended analysis of the initiative during Tuesday’s meeting.
The original analysis, presented to the board at its March 7 meeting, identified numerous “unintended consequences” in the initiative. While the initiative is “well intended,” staff’s analysis asserted that the measure, would “have dire consequences to the cannabis industry in Humboldt County.”
Proponents of the initiative disputed the county’s findings and asserted that staff had intentionally mischaracterized the ballot measure with “unfounded assertions and false statements” in an attempt to “influence public opinion on a ballot measure,” potentially violating the Political Reform Act. The sponsors asked the county to “either withdraw the analysis or promptly correct” it.
The staff report notes that the analysis was “not to be used for campaign purposes but [was] written to help the Board of Supervisors and the public, as appropriate, to understand the implications of the [initiative].” Even so, staff agreed to amend the analysis to address some of the concerns outlined in the sponsors’ letter and provide a better understanding of the impacts identified in the initiative.
“The objective is to provide information for the board [and] provide information to the public to increase understanding,” Ford said during Tuesday’s meeting. “One of the concerns expressed in the letter is that the analysis misconstrued the intent of the [initiative]. The analysis is not looking at the intent of [the initiative] but solely what is written, and expresses concerns about how that may be interpreted.”
Michael Colantuono, outside counsel obtained by the County of Humboldt, noted that each member of the Board of Supervisors, as well as the board as an institution, has the First Amendment Right to express their point of view.
“What you cannot do,” he said, “is use public resources to engage in express advocacy. You can’t say ‘vote yes’ and you can’t say ‘vote no,’ but you absolutely can ask your staff to apply their professional expertise to help you and the public you serve to understand what the choice is.”
Speaking during the public comment portion of the discussion, Kevin Bundy, the sponsor’s attorney, urged the board “to keep the county’s role in this neutral and factual” and “not to commit itself to the unfounded interpretations advanced by the initiative’s opponents.”
The vast majority of speakers disagreed and encouraged the board to take a stand. Paul Hagen, a local attorney specializing in environmental law, warned that a neutral stance would “neuter” the board.
“Are the supervisors and individual elected officials willing to take a stance?” Hagen asked. “Your own attorney has said that you can. The [Fair Political Practices Commission] FPPC says that you can. … The idea that you’ve been urged to remain factual is a good idea. The idea that you’ve been urged to remain neutral, neuters you. Why are you elected officials if you have to remain neutral? … I’m not asking you to say one side or the other about your position, I’m just asking you to take a position if you think you should and to speak for your community as elected representatives.”
Hagen added that while the initiative has good intentions, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
Jackee Riccio, executive director and co-founder of Cannabis for Conservation, similarly criticized the initiative’s “façade as an environmental policy,” arguing that the document “fails to cite relevant peer-reviewed research to support its claims.”
“The lack of consultation or collaboration is blatantly evident to anyone involved in cannabis and environmental research,” Riccio said. “[The initiative] entirely undercuts evidence-supported conservation strategies and the collaborative environmental [efforts] already underway in the county that are far more biologically effective than any practice in this initiative could ever be.”
Laura Lasseter, executive director of the Southern Humboldt Business and Visitors Bureau, spoke to the potential economic impacts associated with the initiative.
“[The initiative] looms as a grave peril to Humboldt’s rural economy, casting a shadow over the potential of cannabis tourism in our region,” she said. “If enacted, this initiative would deliver a devastating blow before our cannabis tourism industry has even had a chance to blossom at all. Humboldt County has long been synonymous with cannabis excellence, attracting visitors from all around the world, the [initiative] jeopardizes this rich heritage by imposing unworkable restrictions on our local cannabis businesses.”
Returning to the matter at hand, Thurmond emphasized that the amended analysis “continued to present false statements and false representations” of the initiative and accused the county of using “a fear-mongering approach” to upset the public.
“I hear the reasons for being upset, and I don’t see those reasons in any of the language in the initiative,” he continued. “I do see it in the language of the analysis [with] false statements about tourism permits and so forth. … That’s an example of how this has just gotten overblown and overwhelmed. And I think the analysis from the county is responsible for most of this problem.”
Another resident, who chose not to identify herself, said she supported the initiative because it “cannot be changed by politicians.” She pointed to Resolution No. 18-43, passed by the Board of Supervisors in May of 2018, which established a cap on the number of permits and acreage for commercial cannabis cultivation. The resolution stipulated that the county must conduct an annual, public review of the permitting and acreage allowances in the county.
“In the past five years, there has been no public hearing and no report detailing the number and status of cannabis cultivation permits,” she said. “The Board of Supervisors agreed to the annual review starting in 2019 and to make the review and cannabis cultivation report public, but this has never happened. We need the Humboldt Cannabis Reform Initiative because it requires environmentally responsible cannabis cultivation, supports watershed health, ensures public involvement and does protect small-scale, environmentally-minded cannabis farmers.”
Following public comment, Bohn asked Ford if he could explain why staff hasn’t followed through with an annual review detailing the status of the county’s commercial cannabis permits.
“At the time that [the] resolution was adopted, there was a thinking that [the] cap would have to be revisited … because there would be pressure for additional permits and additional acreage to be allocated,” Ford explained. “But that could only be done if the regulations that were in effect were successful [in] reducing the amount of surface water that was being used, protecting water quality, that sort of thing. We haven’t been confronted with that, in all honesty, and we have not seen information coming in from the state where the stream gauges have been put in place.”
In an attempt to emphasize the rigorous environmental review process, Bohn asked Ford how many agencies must approve a given permit before it comes back to the county for approval. Ford explained the permit is subject to review by the county Department of Public Works and the Department of Environmental Health, state and federal agencies that own public land, as well as the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Regional Water Quality Control Board and, often, area tribes.
Bohn noted that some of the commenters had “made it sound like we’re just throwing these permits out” and wanted to ensure the county is taking the proper steps to mitigate environmental impacts.
“I think we’re being very diligent about looking to make sure that the environment is being protected,” Ford said.
Bushnell asked Ford how the county’s inspection processes have evolved over the years. He explained that the staff had “really stepped into the full inspection process” in the last year.
“We had inspections of 800 sites on the ground,” he said. “We inspected approximately 400 using remote satellite imagery. We’re also in the process of digitizing the permitted cultivation area into the GIS system so that we can look at it immediately and see exactly whether or not there’s been a change based on current imagery. This year we are intending to visit every site in-person [with] boots on the ground inspection of every site.”
Bushnell asked Ford how enforcement would change if the initiative were to pass.
“Well, I think that’s part of the struggle,” Ford responded. “The General Plan doesn’t fit into the existing cannabis ordinance. The General Plan sits separate from that. … I won’t get into specifics but, basically, what we would have to do is modify the ordinance to conform to the general plan. And then, if there are changes that would be needed [to] be inconsistent with the General Plan … that work would have to then be approved by the voters before the ordinance could be amended.”
Wilson noted that, if the initiative were to pass, the county “would be the one on the hook” for any subsequent legal action. “There is no obligation for the proponents to offer any legal resources with relationship to anything after that [election] process,” he said.
After making a few additional comments, Wilson made a motion to accept and file the report with no additional modifications or recommendations. Arroyo offered a second to the action. Before voting, Bushnell stated her opposition to the initiative.
The motion passed in a unanimous 5-0 vote.
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