At board meeting supes provide little clarity on cannabis rule changes — cultivation of more than 25 plants now appears unlawful

A letter sent over the weekends instructed growers that lawful cultivation had been rolled back to 25, no more zip-ties would be issued, but a new ordinance would soon be in place. The authorship of the letter is uncertain.

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UKIAH 3/8/2017 — About two dozen cannabis growers and nursery owners, many of them operating under the county’s chapter 9.31 ordinance, showed up at Tuesday’s board of supervisors meeting to blast the supes, particularly Second District Supervisor John McCowen, over an ambiguous letter they received last Friday. The letter, which was signed by Undersheriff Randy Johnson, but which he said he did not write himself, advises permittees that their 9.31 permits will not be renewed, and that zip-ties are no longer being issued. (The full text of the letter is available below.)

The letter elaborates that that growers should soon be able to apply for permits under the county’s proposed medical cannabis cultivation ordinance (once it passes), and claims that pursuant to a settlement with the Blacktail Deer Association, a local hunter’s association, the county in fact “lacks clear authority” to issue new permits. It adds that, therefore, legal cultivation is now “limited to 25 plants.”

Ironically this has left those growers who sought full legal compliance in a legal limbo. The already-confusing situation remains murky, with many conflicting accounts and declarations. At this time it’s not even clear who authored the letter.

Several growers, as well as the undersheriff, believe that the letter was prompted by concerns about a lawsuit from the Blacktail Association, but County Counsel Katharine Elliott said she was not aware that they had had any influence on the decision to send the letter.

The letter states that “The County is currently in the process of developing a Medical Cannabis Cultivation Regulation (MCCR) that will supercede Chapter 9.31…The County was previously required to stop accepting applications for the Chapter 9.31 program,” due to the settlement over a lawsuit brought by the Blacktail Deer Association. The letter continues,  “Accordingly, the County lacks clear authority to issue additional permits or permit renewals.”

This led many permit holders to fear that their permits had been retroactively cancelled, though County Counsel Katharine Elliott stated that the letter had been “misinterpreted.”

The letter also states that the information within “Is provided based on current direction from the BOS (board of supervisors).” However, when the Mendo Voice reached Supervisors Dan Hamburg and Dan Gjerde over the weekend, both of them were surprised to learn of the letter. The Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office public information officer, Captain Greg Van Patten was asked for a comment over the weekend, but has not yet responded.

On Tuesday, speaking to a crowd of about a dozen growers outside the board of supervisors chambers, Johnson assured them that “What it says on the permit is to some extent irrelevant…I didn’t write the letter, I was just instructed to send it out.”

In a brief interview, Johnson added, “I worked with John McCowen and county counsel for the letter…The problem is, if it’s the board, you can’t do anything except in open session…John’s [McCowen] the point person on this, so we’re down with John [McCowen]…Katharine Elliott worked on it, and Brina Latkin worked on it as well.” McCowen was a member of a marijuana ad hoc committee last year, and is chair of the board, but county staff confirmed that he has no special responsibility or authority to make cannabis policy, or issue directives.

Speaking to the issue of authorship Assistant CEO Alan Flora said, “The executive office wasn’t involved in the preparation of this letter.”

Roger Wheeler, a letter recipient, rebuked McCowen, saying, “You’ve really broken the trust that the sheriff’s good efforts have started to build.” His opinion was echoed by other speakers during the ten minutes McCowen allotted to the subject. Some speakers even called him to account for the settlement with the Blacktail Deer Association, which abruptly halted the application process for permits under the 9.31 ordinance last year. As a result, only a limited number of people were permitted to grow under the program, which is administered by the sheriff’s department. The Blacktail Deer Association is a hunters’ advocacy group that blames cannabis farmers for spoiling the deer herds’ habitat.

Wheeler told the board that “I got this little letter from the sheriff’s office, not really anything I didn’t expect…I think, under your direction, Supervisor McCowen, we’re further behind than we were.” He also laid the blame for the low number of 9.31 permittees at McCowen’s feet, saying that many other prospective applicants “were shut out, thanks to the deal you made behind closed doors with the Blacktail Deer Association,” It should be noted that at the time McCowen was only one of five supervisors, who were all voting on cannabis matters. Subsequently Hamburg began recusing himself and Tom Woodhouse resigned.

Julia Dakin, of the Small Farmers Association, took a milder approach than Wheeler, characterizing herself as “a business owner and a rule follower,” who made some decisions she thought were legal, but now finds herself in “legal limbo.”

Another grower, Mark Thies, reminded the board that “A lot of my cohort was in favor of AF,” the recent ballot initiative that many saw as a possible alternative to the ordinance that has yet to be passed by the supervisors. “My response was, I believe in the board of supervisors,” he said, which is why he chose to vote no on AF.

The most fiery speaker was a grower who identified himself as Brandon, who blamed McCowen and former Third District Supervisor Tom Woodhouse for failing to craft an ordinance when they were on the marijuana ad hoc committee last year. “We need a permanent cultivation ordinance that is reasonable and workable and we needed it a year ago,” he declared. “It appears quite obvious that the county is being pushed around by what is essentially a private security firm. That is something you would expect to see in a banana republic, not the United States of America.” Paul Trouette, the president of the Blacktail Deer Association, is also CEO of Lear Asset Management, which offer security and marijuana clean-up services.

McCowen responded to the comments by saying, “Whether that letter had gone out or not, there was going to be a gap between the 2016 program and the program currently under development that we hope to adopt as soon as we reasonably can. We are under legal scrutiny. We do have to follow CEQA [the California Environmental Quality Act]. That’s inevitably made the process more drawn out…I am also reasonably confident the sheriff understands the situation and will have respect for the fact that people who are doing everything can to be legally compliant are not the highest priority for law enforcement.” He did not respond to a cultivator’s request to get that assurance in writing.

Johnson, like the growers, said he believes that the Blacktail Deer Association played a part in the decision to send the letter. When he was asked if 9.31 permits were retroactively canceled, he said, “As long as they still have all their paperwork, that’s still  going to be looked at…the board was concerned about issuing the permits with that date, considering the Blacktail Deer Association could turn about a lawsuit.” He said he does not communicate with the group, but that he was told that county counsel was in contact with them. “They’re trying to work with them so there’s not another lawsuit to shut something else down,” he said. Asked if he had been privy to such discussions, he said, “No. That’s lawyer-lawyer contact.”

When Elliott was asked if the Blacktail Deer Association had had any influence on drafting the letter, she said, “Not that I’m aware of…I mean, I never know who’s talking to who.” She added that “The idea was to let people know that they were still in compliance, even if they hadn’t gotten their permits and everything.” Asked if there had been any contact with the Blacktail Deer Association about that, she said, “No.”

According to the CEO’s report, the first reading of the cannabis cultivation ordinances is scheduled for the March 21 board of supervisors meeting, with the second reading scheduled for April 4.

Below is the test of the entire letter:

THOMAS D. ALLMAN Sheriff-Coroner

Undersheriff Randy Johnson

Captain Gregory L. Van Patten

Field Services

Captain Tim Pearce Corrections

County of Mendocino Office Of The Sheriff-Coroner

February 27, 2017

To whom it may concern,

Enclosed with this letter is a permit issued to you under the exemption to the 25 plant per parcel limitation and certain other limitations provided for in Chapter 9.31 Title 9 of the Mendocino County Code Entitled “Medical Marijuana Cultivation Regulation.” This permit is issued pursuant to Section 9.31. 10 of Chapter 9.31 with an expiration date of December 31, 2016. Chapter 9.3 provides that permits are subject to annual renewal, but neither this nor any other Chapter 9.3 permit will be renewed for the reasons stated below.

The County is currently in the process of developing Medical Cannabis Cultivation Regulations (MCCR) that will supersede Chapter 9.31. Current projections are that the MCCR will be adopted in March and that applications will be available in May, The County was previously required to stop accepting applications for the Chapter 9.31 permit program pursuant to a Settlement agreement that resolved a legal challenge to the adoption of the 9.31 permit program. Accordingly, the County lacks clear authority to issue additional permits or permit renewals and lawful cannabis cultivation pursuant to Chapter 9.31 is currently limited to 25 plants.

Although permits issued pursuant to Chapter 9.3 l will not be renewed, your permit application entitles you to priority processing for MCCR permits once MCCR is adopted and the County is able to resume issuing permits.

The following information is provided based on current direction of the Board of Supervisors (BOS) and is subject to change pending final adoption of the MCCR. The BOS has directed that MCCR permits will be issued by the Agricultural Commissioner. The BOS has directed that Submission and acceptance of a completed application that complies with the application requirements of MCCR will allow permit applicants to lawfully engage in cultivation Subject to subsequent permit issuance or denial by the Agricultural Commissioner. This provision will allow for lawful cultivation while permit applications are being processed. If a permit application is denied, in whole or in part, the applicant will be required to comply with the decision of the Agricultural Commissioner,

At this time the Office of The Sheriff-Coroner is not issuing Medical Marijuana Zip ties. However, please continue to comply with all cannabis cultivation guidelines. All cannabis cultivators are required to comply with the current Chapter 9.31 Ordinance and all other applicable state and local laws, including possible enrollment and compliance with regulations of the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board.

Thank you for your participation in the 2016 Chapter 9.3 permit program.

Sincerely,

Randy Johnson

Undersheriff


By Sarah Reith sreith@mendovoice.com

Reporting contributed by

Kate Maxwell

Adrian Fernandez Baumann

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