Those looking forward to growing marijuana for commercial reasons or opening up a store to sell it in Tuolumne County may want to hold off a little bit before setting up their business plans.

At its first meeting of 2017 on Tuesday, the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors unanimously passed an ordinance expressly banning commercial activity related to marijuana, including cultivation and retail sales.

“The express ban would not alter the current state of the law in Tuolumne County, but will provide clarity for the public, state agencies and county staff,” said Deputy County Counsel Carlyn Drivdahl.

The ban will remain in place until a board-appointed working group can develop regulations on commercial-marijuana activity that would be acceptable to the board, Drivdahl said.

However, the ban does not apply to an ordinance passed by the board last year allowing residents in the unincorporated area with a valid medical-marijuana prescription to grow a certain number of plants for personal, medicinal use.

The ban also doesn’t prohibit adults 21 and older from growing up to six plants inside their residence or from possessing, obtaining or giving away up to an ounce of marijuana for personal, recreational use as approved by California voters through a Nov. 8 ballot initiative known as the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, or AUMA.

Under the AUMA, local jurisdictions can choose to ban or enact their own regulations on commercial marijuana activity that are as strict or stricter than the the state’s.

The state is not required to begin issuing licenses for commercial growing operations or retail stores that would sell recreational marijuana until Jan. 1, 2018, giving the county and its working group some time to sort out the regulations.

Pro-regulation advocates at Tuesday’s meeting described their tepid support for the ban as a concession to help bring the sides together and come up with a mutually agreeable regulatory framework for marijuana businesses.

Others who spoke against the ban said it could put local marijuana farmers at a disadvantage because the law allows priority licensing for those who have their affairs in order and demonstrated compliance with the law ahead of the deadline.

“I’d really like to see the ad-hoc committee or working group get together soon because farmers will miss priority licensing if we don’t get approved,” said Groveland resident Jesse Kraft, who hopes to start a small marijuana farm in the county. “We’d like to operate a very compliant, forthcoming, transparent business.”

The board told pro-marijuana advocates last February that a working group would be formed to look at more comprehensive regulations. However, the group has yet to meet.

District 3 Supervisor Evan Royce, who pushed for allowing medical users to grow a limited

number of plants rather than banning all cultivation, said the reason the group never met is because the county was waiting to see the results from the Nov. 8 election.

District 1 Supervisor Sherri Brennan, who will lead the working group with Royce, thanked those in attendance for the “well thought-out manner” in which they’ve approached the issue, as well as their patience.

“I know Supervisor Royce and I are prepared now to really dig in,” Brennan said. “We’ll be front and center as we made a commitment to do once we knew the elections results.”

Some who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting also made suggestions for the county to consider as it goes through the process of coming up with local regulations.

Sara Herrin, of Tuolumne, advocated for the county to keep medical-marijuana patients in mind when coming up with new regulations. She also advocated for allowing outdoor cultivation because some medical users can’t grow indoors for various reasons, such as federal housing rules or an unapproving landlord.

“I think this county is big enough to handle some outdoor grows, especially if it’s not commercial,” Herrin said.

Herrin was one of four who were arrested on felony drug charges in May 2011 for operating a medical-marijuana dispensary in East Sonora. Their cases were dismissed nearly two years later by the Tuolumne County District Attorney’s Office due to changes in state law that hampered the prosecution.

The group said during an interview in January 2014 that fighting the charges cost about $50,000, most of which was paid by loans except for about $10,000 from former patients. The Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office later had to return most of the items seized during the raid on their dispensary, including four pounds of years-old pot and about $12,000.

Cases against five others arrested on the same day at two other dispensaries in the county were also dismissed, though some had already served time in jail after initially pleading guilty.

Since the arrests, however, storefront medical-marijuana dispensaries have been banned by both the board and Sonora City Council.

Theresa Blackwood, who recently worked at a medical-marijuana dispensary in Stanislaus County, said they accumulated about 5,000 patients over the past six months and at least 800 hailed from Tuolumne County.

Blackwood said she’s heard of medical-marijuana users in the county also going to dispensaries in Stockton and Calaveras County.

“People go a long way to get their medication now and they pay a lot of tax money,” Blackwood said to the board Tuesday. “It would be nice if we brought that home.”

Kira Tucker, director of Tuolumne Cannabis Advocates, provided the board with a detailed proposal of a multi-phase process that’s intended to prevent the situation from getting out of hand while allowing the industry to grow.

Part of Tucker’s proposal would allow up to three dispensaries to operate in the county within certain restricted zoning areas.

Tucker also said it was imperative for the county to begin rolling out a local licensing process as soon as possible so that local people can be in the running for state licensing in 2018.
Earlier at Tuesday’s meeting, Tuolumne County Superior Court Presiding Judge Donald Segerstrom swore in Brennan, District 5 Supervisor Karl Rodefer and District 4 Supervisor John Gray, who were each re-elected in November to serve another four years.

The board also elected Brennan to serve as chairwoman and District 2 Supervisor Randy Hanvelt as vice-chairman for 2017.