SLO County considers ban on marijuana cultivation

With the rapid expansion of medical marijuana cultivation in San Luis Obispo County — just since the beginning of this year — county officials have raised alarms about the potentially massive water use, environmental damage and crime that could grow along with the crop.

With voters expected to approve a statewide ballot measure in November to legalize recreational marijuana use, county officials are motivated to get some regulations on the books as quickly as possible.

On Tuesday afternoon, the county Board of Supervisors will consider an urgency ordinance banning most cultivation of medical marijuana.

As proposed, the ordinance would generally prohibit marijuana cultivation except for patients and caregivers with medical marijuana prescriptions, who would be allowed to do indoor and outdoor cultivation of no more than six plants per patient, with no more than 500 square feet under cultivation.

The ordinance would be in effect for 45 days, but it could be extended for up to two years. Emergency interim ordinances are typically put in place while a permanent ordinance is drafted. Four of the five supervisors will have to vote in favor of the ordinance for it to be adopted.

County officials estimate there are more than 500 marijuana cultivation sites in the county — with more than 100 grows planted in the California Valley area since the beginning of spring.

“Over the past few years, there has been a steady increase in the number and size of these cultivations and the proximity to more populated areas,” the draft ordinance states.

All of this cannabis is intended to be for medical use, but some of it might be shipped out of state, assistant county administrative officer Guy Savage said.

One reason for this proliferation is that marijuana can be a lucrative crop. Each marijuana plant can yield between 2 and 4 pounds in its lifetime. An ounce of high-grade marijuana can fetch $240, and a single plant can yield up to $15,500 in salable marijuana, according to the proposed ordinance.

The ordinance is necessary because the proliferation of grow sites is causing public health and safety problems, said Art Trinidade, county code enforcement supervisor. The explosion of marijuana plantings in the California Valley has resulted in numerous county code enforcement violations, which are misdemeanors.

“Our code enforcements in the California Valley are based primarily on unauthorized structures and unsafe living conditions,” Trinidade said.

The ordinance cites the following problems caused by marijuana cultivation:

▪  The large amount of water needed to grow the plants: A marijuana plant can use 1,200 gallons of water in its lifetime

▪  Possible violent encounters between the public and growers protecting their crops

▪  Strong and pungent odors emanating from pot farms

▪  Fertilizers, rodenticides, insecticides and other harmful chemicals often found at grow sites

▪  Dangerous electrical and plumbing systems at many sites

▪  The dumping of sewage and trash, and illegal tents and trailers at many sites

▪  Documented gang members have been found at several grow sites

“Without sufficient regulations, standards, procedures and thresholds which are enforceable pursuant to an adopted ordinance, there is a current and immediate threat to the public health, safety and welfare from these marijuana cultivation facilities,” the interim ordinance concludes.

Sean Donahoe, Policy Advisor, Local Government and Electoral Politics for the California Growers Association, said the ordinance, as proposed, goes too far. He said a ban on new plantings would make more sense than an outright prohibition, particularly given the fact that it could take more than a year to write and pass a permanent ordinance.

“It is very draconian, in my opinion,” he said. “If you are a small farmer, you would not be able to grow all next year.”

Bruce Gibson, 2nd District supervisor, said he supports the idea of an urgency ordinance if it is properly crafted and enforceable.

“I see the urgency,” he said. “But I am concerned that if we do this incorrectly, we will burden the Sheriff’s Office beyond its capacity.”

The ordinance comes at a time when dramatic changes in state regulations of marijuana use are in the offing.

The most important is an initiative on the Nov. 8 ballot that would legalize the personal use of marijuana in California. The use of marijuana for medicinal purposes has been legal in the state since 1996.

The initiative would allow adults 21 and older to possess, transport and use up to an ounce of marijuana for recreational purposes, and it would allow individuals to grow as many as six plants. Polling indicates that the initiative will pass.

A poll by UC Berkeley showed 64 percent support among likely voters,” Donahoe said.

Several marijuana bills also are working their way through the state Legislature, Donahoe said. One of the most potentially important for San Luis Obispo County is a licensing bill that would limit the size of marijuana grows, which is intended to decentralize marijuana cultivation and keep it small-business oriented.

This rapidly changing landscape in marijuana regulation is another reason the emergency ordinance is needed, Savage said.

“The ordinance puts some rules in place until we can get our arms around what is happening on the state level,” he said. “Where this will all end up, we don’t know.”

County supervisors have used urgency ordinances several times in the past. Most recently, they enacted urgency ordinances governing the cutting of oak trees and the construction of agricultural reservoirs.