Cannabis

Op-Ed: Local Cannabis Farmer Seeks Solutions to the ‘Regulatory Morass’ of State & Local Permitting

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The following letter was written by Casey O’Neill, Co-Operator of HappyDay Farms and a member of Mendocino Cannabis Alliance’s Interim Policy Committee, addressing concerns associated with county and state permitting processes for legal cannabis farms. O’Neill specifically provides commentary on recent a recent checklist drafted by Mendocino County known as “Appendix G” that is linked at the bottom.

Folks have mentioned to me that they’ve noticed I’ve been quiet on the cannabis front for the last few months. We saw a huge uptick in vegetable sales this spring, and the process of expanding our production to match has taken every bit of energy we possess. This is the first time since 2014 that I’ve been on my farm full time and that feels glorious.

What doesn’t feel so glorious is the confusion and conundrums surrounding cannabis right now. The snafu of CDFW (California Department of Fish and Wildlife) delays on sensitive species and habitat reviews (SSHR), CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act), and land-use regulations has created a very real problem for the future of regulated cultivation in Mendocino County. I would like to offer some thoughts in regards to the various commentaries that have been floating around of late. 

The County has worked with the California Department of Food and Agriculture to draft a checklist called “Appendix G” that would suffice for CEQA for some cultivators. This should be utilized wherever possible. For those businesses that are in process but cannot utilize Appendix G because of specific conditions on their parcels, the County should develop a streamlined land-use permit. For future new businesses, the county should continue its effort to develop a full land-use permit process.  

I want to be clear that I am not taking a position around the question of expansion of cultivation size. I will say, however, that my farm would not pursue a permit above 10,000 square feet regardless of whether it were available. 

It is important to point out the remaining stigma that exists around cannabis cultivation as indicated in recent opinions pieces in local publications. Cannabis is regulated in Mendocino County to not exceed a quarter acre (10,00 sq ft.) of flowering canopy. For all the talk of “big growers”, a quarter acre of production does not make a large farm in the eyes of agriculturalists. 

And for all the hue and cry about big growers, the permitting system is the most rigorous of anything that exists in agriculture. California issues licenses to cultivators based on a great many criteria including water usage, permitting from various state agencies and permission from the local jurisdiction in which the farm is located. There is a dual licensing system that requires cultivators to apply for both state and local licensure. 

There are large-scale unregulated operations that can have significant negative effects on the environment and the community. We’ve seen these types of operations face enforcement actions in Covelo this summer. Egregious environmental crimes are never acceptable. 

The most important issue in local cannabis at this time is not expansion, it is the question of whether cultivators will be able to transition to State Annual licenses when the State Provisional licenses expire at the end of next year. Aside from their local permit application, most cultivators with state licenses in Mendocino County are operating under a Provisional license, which means that in the eyes of the California Department of Food and Agriculture we have not met our obligations under CEQA. We must do so in order to receive full Annual Licenses that are renewed each year for as long as we choose to continue in business. The deadline to get an Annual State License is January 2022. We cannot get Annual State Licenses without having the SSHR and other site-specific CEQA review. 

I believe that county policymakers recognize that the priority must be to work with staff to help craft a way to completion of state annual licenses for the cohort of cultivators who are already in process. Those who wish to expand and those who wish to begin new cultivation must take a backseat to maintaining the current licensees.  The businesses that are in process already are creating jobs and contributing significant tax revenue to the county at a time when budgets are in the red because of the pandemic. 

My personal standpoint is that a streamlined land-use process that satisfies CEQA — whether through the Appendix G process between the County and CDFA (see below) or through issuance of a land-use permit — would be ideal. There is a problem of timeline, in which either of these options could take longer than the “provisionals” are in effect, forcing some businesses to close. The other problem is that CDFA has based the Appendix G on our current ordinance. Significant changes to the current ordinance have the potential to jeopardize the Appendix G process, although there is not clarity as of yet as to how effective this process might be. Until these problems are solved, we won’t be able to stay in business unless the state extends the existing provisional licenses, which at this point, they say they won’t do. 

 In short, the regulatory morass is real and will require some time to sort out. The rising note of concern from community members about cannabis is real, but should also be tempered by the reality that ending Prohibition is not easy and that this is perhaps the most complicated policy issue that the county will grapple with in this decade. More information on these issues can be found in the memos submitted by the Mendocino Cannabis Alliance (linked here). In the interest of full transparency, I serve on the policy committee of MCA, though my opinions in this letter are solely my own. 

I’m frightened by the prospect of having to shutter my cannabis business. I’m concerned about the future of regulated cannabis in the state of California. I’m saddened by the public discourse that I see. I hope for better from all of us. 

Thank you for your time and consideration,

Casey O’Neill

HappyDay Farms

The featured image was provided by O’Neill and depicts him harvesting watermelon on HappyDay Farms

Categories: Cannabis, Op-Ed

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