Elena Bilheimer, EcoNews Journalist
A new ballot initiative, entitled the Humboldt Cannabis Reform Initiative, is seeking signatures in order to potentially be approved by either the Board of Supervisors or by ballot vote in the November 2022 election. While everyone agrees that there are improvements that could be made regarding the current condition of the cannabis industry in both the county and the state, the Humboldt County Growers Alliance (HCGA) has come out in strong opposition to this particular initiative.
According to Betsy Watson, a retired Cal Poly Humboldt professor and one of the creators behind this project, the ballot initiative was created after several people in her community in Kneeland received notice of a new grow that was going to be 44,000 square feet next to three other farms, two of which she considers large. This made her neighborhood feel industrial rather than agricultural. After an unsuccessful community meeting, Watson and her neighbors looked at the ordinance that permits cannabis grows and learned that the current cap on new permits was 2,500, around 2.5x the amount of permits that have already been approved. Watson found this information alarming and after attending County planning meetings decided to create the initiative as a way to give neighbors more of a voice in the permitting process. The most important components Watson wanted to include in the Initiative were a cap on new cultivation permits and a limit on new permits to 10,000 square feet.
“The instruction that we gave our attorneys was to put a cap on the numbers and to be biased for small farmers and biased against industrializing farmers,” said Watson. “And being a very good attorney, he constantly, as we went through the process, advised us to be legally conservative, which we followed his advice. We went to a firm outside the county who has a lot of experience writing initiatives because this is a tremendous responsibility. You know, once you get this in motion as it is now, you can’t change it except by going back to the voters.”
The permanence of a ballot initiative process is one of the main reasons Natalynne DeLapp, the Executive Director for Humboldt County Growers Alliance, is against it. “I think that a lot of the goals that they have in mind are goals that we share in common,” said Delapp. “But the devil is in the details. And the actual initiative language was never circulated for public review. So that means no members of the public agencies, experts, or affected stakeholders had the opportunity to review the language. And this is not a simple initiative. It’s not just to put a moratorium on new cannabis cultivation. Instead, it includes 35 pages of additional amendments to our land use ordinances that apply to cannabis as well as the general plan update.” Instead, DeLapp advocates for a more public process and explained that she thinks the creators of the initiative could get their needs met through conversations with their supervisors. “Okay, you want to adjust and say that there shouldn’t be more new permits,” said DeLapp. “One could easily say ‘Hey County, I would like to work with the County to amend section five 126.96.36.199.’ I do it all the time.”
However, Watson asserts that the people in her community tried to create change through the public process, but were disappointed by the response. “We tried, and, I mean, the elected officials either didn’t get back to us to answer our questions or were borderline not civil,” said Watson. “We tried. There is no place in this process for neighbors to do or say anything.”
On March 21, 2022, HCGA issued a letter stating their strong opposition to the Cannabis Reform Initiative, outlining some of their main complaints. The Humboldt Cannabis Reform Initiative responded in kind, adding a Q&A section to their website replying to many of HCGA’s comments. Part of what can exacerbate the problem is the confusion over the type of permits the Initiative is referring to, in addition to confusion about what kind of permit is counted in the 2,500 cap set by the Board of Supervisors.
Getting a new cannabis cultivation permit itself can also be confusing, and there are multiple steps required. According to John Ford, the Humboldt County Planning and Building Department Director, the process begins with an application assistance meeting to determine the details of the cultivation (who, what, where) and the necessary documents needed. The application is then submitted, and referred out to other county, state, and federal agencies, depending on its location. During this referral period, a determination is made whether additional environmental review is required under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and the County’s 1st or 2nd Cannabis Ordinance. If all goes smoothly, a staff report is then written and scheduled, and the permit is approved by either the Planning Director, Zoning Administrator, or Planning Commission. Oftentimes, the people seeking the permit hire engineering firms, planning firms, and/or lawyers to help them navigate the process. If the permit is appealed, it goes to the Board of Supervisors for a vote.
Regardless of the complexity of this process, Watson believes that the County’s process doesn’t account for the many diverse environments in Humboldt and the people and places that are affected. “The whole thing when we legalized was, tell them to come in out of the hills and be part of legal business,” said Watson. “And they have, and the County hasn’t done anything to promote their business, to protect them. All they’ve done is said yes to big, ever-expanding grows that are industrial by any standards.”
While Watson is particularly frustrated by the way cannabis is being managed by the County, DeLapp’s disappointment is directed at the state. “What is happening in Humboldt County, why are our farms suffering?” said Delapp. “It’s because what is happening is happening on a California level. Because the state of California has authorized the massive proliferation of new cannabis cultivation across the state of California. That is, California is now over producing cannabis in excess of three to five times more than California’s market can consume. ”
In order for the initiative to make it to the ballot, it needs 6,000 valid signatures by May 24, 2022. To learn more about this issue, visit the Humboldt Cannabis Reform Initiative’s website (cannabisinitiative.org/initiative), and the HCGA’s website (hcga.co/updates).