I Warned You

Proposed county ordinances will sink cannabis industry

When I wrote last (“The Big Squeeze,” Sept. 28), it was about my fears for the future of the small cannabis farmer. Since then, Sonoma County has released its proposed cannabis ordinance. As it turns out, the future for the small farmer is grim indeed.

The biggest issue is the proposed removal of “agricultural and residential” and “rural residential” zoning from areas where licensed commercial cannabis will be permissible. The county estimates that 40 percent of growers are in these zones now. From conversations I’ve had with growers and clients, I think the number is much higher.

So far, county officials are taking a hard line. There will be no exceptions, regardless of parcel size, longevity of the site’s operation, opinions of the neighbors, remoteness of the property or other factors that might make a grow in these areas perfectly safe and acceptable. Why is this so problematic?

At least 40 percent (and I believe it’s closer to 70–80 percent) of farmers will either have to move or quit if they want to stay legal under state law. The county will only allow commercial cultivation above 2,500 square feet in agricultural or industrial areas. It’s also requiring minimum parcel sizes. The average person cannot simply buy five or 10 acres of ag land, or a large industrial building, in Sonoma County. Land prices are too high and much of the agricultural land is planted in grapes. This proposed ordinance will dramatically cut the size of the legal cannabis community through land-use restrictions alone.

It gets worse. The county will have many (as yet unspecified) requirements to get a conditional-use permit. These will cost money. Many of these requirements will take small growers by surprise. For example, are you prepared to have an ADA-compliant bathroom at your cultivation site? You may need it. The costs to satisfy the county will be significant.

Security and water issues are also likely to be big expenses. Growers might also have to hire expensive experts such as attorneys and engineers. I would not be surprised if the cost of getting through the conditional-use permit process is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Remember that even if the grower gets a county permit, a state license will then be required. That will bring its own expenses, such as track and trace and license fees.

This is all so disappointing. Sonoma County had a real chance to create a brand-new industry from the ground up. Instead, the majority of growers will simply go underground or relocate.

Ben Adams is a local attorney who concentrates his practice on cannabis compliance and defense.