Cannabis advocates say they’re well aware that changing hearts and minds in rural Tuolumne County will be no easy task, but they sense their efforts are showing signs of progress.
They have spent countless hours attending dozens of public meetings to watch as county leaders navigate the fast-changing legal and social landscape pertaining to the long-prohibited and stigmatized substance, which was why they reacted swiftly and strongly to a recently proposed ban on outdoor marijuana cultivation for personal use.
“It’s created an adversarial spirit on both sides,” said Kira Tucker, director of the Tuolumne Cannabis Alliance. “We have to put that fire out and get back to work.”
Tucker, of Crystal Falls, has been at the forefront of the movement to loosen the county’s restrictions on marijuana cultivation since the Board of Supervisors began considering an explicit ban on the practice in November 2015.
Aided by the advocacy of Tucker and her group over months of debate, the proposed ban morphed into an ordinance passed by the board in February 2016 that allows individuals with a doctor’s recommendation for cannabis to grow a total of 12 plants inside their home or outdoors on their property, or up to 24 plants if multiple people with recommendations lived at the same residence.
“We have been trying to change the tone of the conversation about cannabis into a positive and collaborative one,” Tucker said. “After a couple generations of trauma from prohibition, I think the first two years of this process has been about building trust and moving from paranoia.”
The ordinance has remained in place over the course of two growing seasons, the second of which is still underway, but complaints about people violating the rules and neighbors bothered by the smell prompted the board to consider the outdoor cultivation ban.
This change of course came after the county’s Marijuana Working Group, established earlier this year to make suggestions for adding newly legal recreational marijuana to the ordinance, recommended only increasing the required setback for personal, outdoor grows from 25 feet to 50 feet from a neighboring property line.
Tucker, whom the board appointed to the group as a representative for the cannabis industry, said the proposal to ban outdoor cultivation took her by surprise but didn’t feel like a defeat.
“I don’t think the board members I’ve met with privately are talking out of both sides of their mouths,” Tucker said. “It’s challenges like these that rock your faith in those relationships, but I really do feel like they’re doing the best job they can as leaders in this community.”
Tucker believes some on the board are concerned about falling into the same pitfalls as other California counties that have allowed marijuana cultivation, something that she and her group would like to prevent from happening as well.
Some ideas Tucker shared for how to avoid “becoming like Calaveras County” include creating a simple and affordable registration process for personal marijuana growers, allowing people to apply for variances if there property doesn’t meet certain requirements, and prohibiting commercial activity in most residential zoning districts.
“There’s some talk about small commercial grows of up to about 25 plants in residential estate (one home per two acres), but dispensaries and commercial grows don’t belong in neighborhoods,” Tucker said.
The board decided to take a step back from the proposed ban on growing cannabis outdoors at a well-attended meeting Tuesday at the County Administration Center in Sonora, where more than a dozen people spoke in favor of allowing the practice to continue.
Though a ban is still on the table, the board directed county staff and District 3 Supervisor Evan Royce — who is against the proposed ban — to create a set of options that can be used as a guide in the process of revising the current ordinance.
Tucker said the alliance is planning to help by conducting a survey that will provide more information about where people are growing marijuana under the existing ordinance, how many plants they are growing, the size of the lots being used for cultivation, and other details.
“That way we will have some real data to help inform the revision of this ordinance,” Tucker said. “It might not capture 100 percent of people who want to grow, but we have to think about what’s best for the whole community and not just the cannabis community.”
One of the concerns frequently expressed by supervisors who are on the fence about the issue is how the county will be able to cover the cost of enforcing the ordinance in a more effective manner.
The existing ordinance is enforced on a complaint-driven basis and more aggressive enforcement would require the county to hire additional people at a cost of at least $477,000 a year.
Doug Oliver, the county’s chief building inspector and code compliance officer, said he responded to 18 cannabis-related complaints and didn’t find any imminent hazards to public safety, but encountered grows of between 23 and 800 plants peppered throughout the county.
Oliver said other violations included some grows that located too close to “sensitive areas,” including churches and schools, as well as illegal septic systems installed on properties. He didn’t find any illegal chemicals being used, nor did he encounter much resistance from growers.
“Everyone was locals, there wasn’t anybody from outside of the community,” Oliver said. “We also found a lot of positive attitudes … and we got a lot of good information.”
To pay for the increased cost of enforcement, many cannabis activists advocate for allowing commercial marijuana cultivation and sales that can be taxed and used to generate revenue for the county.
Jesse Kraft, of Sonora, is a member of the alliance who has attended many of the public meetings regarding cannabis in the past couple of years to push for allowing and regulating the burgeoning multi-billion-dollar industry.
Kraft said the hope is to allow businesses to begin operating as soon as possible after the state begins issuing licenses on Jan. 1 due to the highly competitive nature of the market. If the county waits too long, he added, it runs the risk of potential local entrepreneurs being edged out by others from outside of the area.
“Early entry will be the key to success of businesses and operators in this county,” Kraft said. “California is already over-producing legally grown cannabis, so that market is going to be captured quickly.”
In exchange for allowing early entry into the market, Kraft said the county should make would-be cannabis entrepreneurs have to jump through a number of hoops that will weed out the more shady characters, including requirements for odor mitigation, security plans, conditional use permits, community benefit plans, social equity plans and inventory tracking software.
Kraft said allowing dispensaries where people can legally buy marijuana will likely have a minimal impact on the number of people who want to grow their own, though it will cut into the profits of illegal growers and dealers.
“The real way it will decrease people from growing in places they shouldn’t is by taking their revenue source away,” Kraft said. “As regulation sets in, it will take away their financial gain.”
District 5 Supervisor Karl Rodefer said when reached by phone Thursday that listening to the arguments from pro-cannabis advocates over the past couple of years has caused him to re-examine his stances on the issue.
Rodefer said he’s never smoked pot despite going to college in the late 1960s and early 1970s, though he’s not opposed to adults using it recreationally as a person who owns grape vineyards and enjoys an occasional glass of wine.
“If we’re talking strictly controlled adult use like alcohol, then I could care less,” Rodefer said. “I have concerns about kids getting their hands on it, but they get their hands on alcohol, too.”
The personal testimonies that Rodefer said he’s heard about the substance’s ability to treat a variety of health-related conditions has also affirmed his belief in its medical benefits.
However, Rodefer still has concerns about allowing cultivation and commercial activity. His specific concerns are about the potential for groundwater contamination, increased electricity use, odor, security, and cost of enforcement.
Rodefer said he would rather see large-scale commercial grows that could afford the measures necessary to mitigate his concerns, as opposed to small mom-and-pop operations scattered throughout the county.
“I don’t care what anybody says, that odor is noxious,” Rodefer said. “I don’t want to get hit in the face with it when I’m coming up from Oakdale with my windows down and have Tuolumne County smell like one big marijuana patch like garlic in Gilroy.”
Rodefer has abstained from voting on anything related to loosening restrictions on marijuana in the past because the federal government still considers it an illegal substance with high potential for addiction and no medical benefits in the same category as heroin, LSD and ecstasy.
Now, Rodefer said he will likely vote in step with state legislation because states in the U.S. still maintain some sovereignty from the federal government, while counties are essentially just arms of the state government under the California Constitution.
Rodefer received criticism after Tuesday’s meeting for looking at his cell phone while some people were providing comments to the board, though he said Thursday that he was paying attention and looking for e-mails related to the topics being discussed.
“I’m not perfect and do occasionally do other things, I’m not going to say I don’t, but in that particular case I was looking for some e-mails that were specific to some comments that were being made at the podium,” Rodefer explained.
“I wouldn’t draw a lot of inference from that. I take very seriously all of the comments that are made at the podium … I’ve heard a lot of it before, but I don’t turn that off. My responsibility is to listen to it as many times as people want to say it.”
Contact Alex MacLean at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 588-4530.