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Supervisors hold special cannabis meeting

A small amount of dried cannabis.

March 3, 2022 — The Board of Supervisors took up a full slate of cannabis issues at its March 2 special meeting, including fallowing, the tax code, an appeals process for application denials, and the proper uses of a seventeen and a half million dollar state grant, which is supposed to help local growers secure annual state licenses.

Supervisors directed County Counsel and cannabis program staff to look into what it would take for growers to take a leave of absence from cultivating, without continuing to pay the minimum cultivation tax. The tax was approved by the voters, so any changes will have to be effected with a certain level of finesse.

Supervisors also tried to hammer out an appeals process that would cover every contingency. The ad hoc committee even took a break with outside legal counsel in an attempt to work out something that would include all applicants; whether they are in the portal or not; the terms of cost recovery; and whether or not applicants appealing a denial should be allowed to continue growing during the appeal. They expect to review various options at a meeting in May.

Cannabis industry representatives called for more transparency and stakeholder meetings with the county cannabis department, but Cannabis Program Director Kristin Nevedal responded that she recently began holding Friday morning meetings about various topics of interest to those in the program.

The program has now been promoted to the status of a department, and is attempting to increase its staff of nine to twenty. The name change does not incur additional costs, but it signals that cannabis is no longer within the purview of other departments, as it has been in the past.

Letters about tree removal also came up during public comment on off-agenda items. Last month, the cannabis program sent some applicants letters and aerial images of areas where trees had been removed. The letters stated that if applicants failed to provide credible evidence like documents from a licensed professional and lists of the species that had been removed within two weeks, their applications would be denied. Cannabis attorney Lauren Mendelsohn blasted the program for its handling of the issue, calling it “arbitrary and unacceptable.”

Nevedal said that a subscription to Planet, the aerial surveillance service utilized by CDFW, could provide archival footage and answer questions about vegetation management. The subscription is $350,000 a year, and is one of the items she proposes to pay for with the local jurisdiction assistance grant.

That set off alarm bells for Michael Katz, Executive Director of the Mendocino Cannabis Alliance, who said that “The grant application did not allow for funds to be used for enforcement, and yet, included in the satellite imagery text is that the tools are crucial for managing complaints about participants. So that’s one specific item that certainly is, on the face of it, related to enforcement.”

Nevedal said that often people call in complaints about things that aren’t actually happening, and that the imagery could be used to discredit false complaints.

Katz also worried about grant money being used to hire full time staff, asking what they would do once the money runs out. Nevedal said cost recovery was written into the budget, and that she expects there will be plenty of work at the cannabis department, what with processing another grant, renewing phase I and phase II applications, and moving into phase III. And she expects the department to play a key role in the county’s economic future. “I’m confident we’ll need staff going forward, as the program expands,” she said. “And I certainly hope that we’ll see changes at the state level that will allow our cannabis businesses to stabilize…I think there’s a lot of opportunity in the future, and I don’t think twenty staff is out of the question, going forward.”

Supervisors and county staff blamed much of the difficulty on the mismatch between the state’s regulations, which require extensive environmental review, and 10a17, the county’s cannabis ordinance, which includes a mitigated negative declaration. Supervisor Ted Williams had a question for Nevedal and County Counsel Christian Curtis during one discussion about an attempt to align county policy with state requirements. “I don’t like the recommended action today,” he declared. “If we pause and we have stakeholder input and we have meetings and we decide to go a direction contrary to where the state is trying to steer us, what have we gained?...It seems like we’re all over the place. Do you see room for negotiation with the state, and if not, why would we hold stakeholder meetings? It sounds like a checkmate.”

Nevedal said she did not think there was “a heck of a lot of room for negotiation with the state” on its requirement.

The Mendocino Cannabis Program holds public meetings every Friday morning at 8:30 am. On March 4, the topics will be program updates, CEQA, and appendix G, a checklist devised to satisfy the state’s environmental requirements.