CA: There Won’t Be A Public Vote To Allow Marijuana Businesses In Parts Of Riverside County

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Photo Credit: Mel Melcon

If there’s a path to marijuana dispensaries and related businesses in unincorporated parts of Riverside County, it won’t go through the ballot box in November.

The county Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday, March 20 to move ahead with a plan to regulate cannabis commerce in county areas outside of any city. But in another split vote, the board abandoned a plan to put a local marijuana tax ballot measure before voters, opting instead to raise money for enforcing cannabis rules through a series of development agreements with individual pot-related businesses.

The votes don’t immediately legalize marijuana cultivation, which remains banned in unincorporated communities with a limited exception for medical marijuana users. And Tuesday afternoon’s board workshop underscored the complexity of regulating a once-illegal activity in unincorporated areas, which are subject to county land-use rules unlike cities that manage their own zoning.

Prop. 64, approved by a majority of California voters in 2016, legalized recreational marijuana and allows adults to possess limited amounts of cannabis in their homes. But cities and counties retain the authority through land-use law to allow or ban dispensaries, grows and related businesses.

Cannabis ventures currently are outlaws in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. But L.A. County supervisors have told their staff to come up with regulation plans that could be implemented in the future.

Orange County, on the other hand, recently reaffirmed its ban on all marijuana businesses in unincorporated communities, such as North Tustin and Banning Ranch.

San Bernardino County also blocks all cannabis enterprises, even as pressure builds from places such as Nipton – a tiny unincorporated community that’s been purchased by a cannabis company that hopes to bring marijuana tourism to the town.

Last August, Riverside County supervisors appointed an ad-hoc committee of supervisors Kevin Jeffries and Chuck Washington to work with staff on a regulatory scheme for pot commerce in unincorporated neighborhoods, where illegal grows, sometimes patrolled by armed guards, cause problems by spreading foul odors and siphoning water and electricity.

The idea has been to bring order and standards to marijuana activity while kicking out bad actors. A companion tax would cover enforcement costs while giving the public a chance to weigh in – if the ballot measure was voted down, the ban on cannabis commerce in unincorporated areas would stay in place.

But Washington, who represents southwest county, argued a ballot measure, estimated to cost $750,000, was too costly and allowed all votes in a county of 2.4 million to decide land-use law for 379,000 people who live in unincorporated areas.

Jeffries, who represents most of Riverside along with Lake Elsinore, Canyon Lake and Wildomar, countered that using developer agreements to pay for marijuana rules enforcement could be challenged in court, since the agreements could be seen as a way to avoid a required public vote on new taxes.

The board voted 3-2, with Jeffries and Supervisor John Tavaglione opposed, to ditch the tax ballot measure in favor of development agreements. Earlier, the board voted 4-1 with Supervisor Marion Ashley opposed to move ahead with regulating marijuana commerce.

Tuesday’s workshop also gave the public a peek at what pot regulations – enforcement costs are estimated at $1.8 million a year – could look like. Among staff’s recommendations are limiting marijuana cultivation to one acre per parcel; banning outdoor cultivation of mature plants and banning on-site consumption and live entertainment at cannabis retailers.

To prevent the county from being overwhelmed at the start, staff suggesting only allowing 19 dispensaries and issuing 50 cultivation permits in the first year.

More than 20 members of the public spoke at the workshop, mainly in favor of allowing marijuana commerce. There were objections to limiting the number of permits and concerns about over-taxing businesses to the point where they go back into the black market.

A set of regulations could come before the county Planning Commission in May or June, with the board holding public hearings this summer before enacting the new rules.

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