A New Pot Permit Category!

Last Tuesday, Supervisor Ted Williams asked Planning and Building Director Brent Schultz, again (sigh), about the status of pot permit processing, commenting that “it looks like noise, three or four in the course of a month. Do we have any better sense of where the logjam is? Is it truly the state, or is it applicants not following through?”

Last May when the subject came up, Mr. Schultz explained the delay by saying, “Mr. Connell [the pot permit program’s “new” point person] doesn't have a program administrator. He doesn't have administrative staff. And he lost three inspectors. We are down 70%. There is a turnover issue. Human Resources has stepped in and we are starting to fill those positions back up." 

Schultz also insisted in May that he was “trying to pare down the whole application process." Of course, nothing like that has happened. He went on to say that the hold up was mainly at the state Fish and Wildlife department.

The Supes then decided not to listen to any more pot permit status updates because so few applications were being processed and it wasn’t worth reporting.

At that May board meeting, Williams was very frustrated with the stalled permit process: “This has gone on too long. The public has no confidence at this point in our cannabis program. People look at it and think, It's not going anywhere. I don't think we can plead for anything anymore. I think we need to take action. We just need to decide what that action is. To expect that we will push this back until August or later — I think we are going to see these 1339 applications not processed in any meaningful way. We will come back in three months and hear that nine more have made it through the process and the rest are blocked somewhere at the state and we are not sure, maybe Fish and Wildlife… I can't support that. I think we have to take some action. Maybe the five of us have to get in a car and go to the Capitol and protest.”

Schultz had previously assured the Board that he was going to “do a deep dive” into the problem, followed by “drilling down” into the problem. He has yet to come up for air.

But last Tuesday, after describing a productive meeting (in his opinion) with yet another state agency in the pot permit loop, Cal-Cannabis, Schultz described a new reason for stalled permits. We’ll call it the “I GIVE UP” category which actually breaks down into two sub-categories. “There are about 70 applicants who can get permits today but they aren’t paying,” said Schultz. “But other ones just… stopped. We are sending out letters saying if you don’t get it [the remaining required paperwork] in in 45 days we’re going to drop your application. Some people are not even calling us. I think we’ll find that there’s a lot of them who have just dropped out of the program.” 

Schultz went on to say, “I’m hopeful that you’re going to see a jump in these [permit] numbers.” (Schultz, A Micawber-quality optimist is always “hopeful” for reasons invisible to everyone else. He also “hopes” to get most of his department’s permit applications upgraded with on-line options by some time next year, no deadlines, of course.) Schultz added that he’s now finally getting around to entering the permit applications into the County's fancy new “track-it” software system. “So I think you’re going to see our numbers pop up a little bit more. Is it a high number? I don’t know yet.”

In other words, lots of applicants have completed permits but simply don’t think it’s worth it to pay any more now that it’s getting kinda late in the growing season, and several hundred more — the actual number will require more time and “deep diving” by Schultz — have said, “I quit. Not worth it. They’ll never be satisfied. I’ll take my chances on the black market.”

By the time Schultz comes up for air after his latest deep dive, the permit program — which continues to be weighed down by a large staff of costly planners and inspectors and compliance officers — will probably have drowned.

Williams seems to have given up too. The process is beyond fixing. He had no follow-up questions for Schultz, no more calls for protests in Sacramento.


Fifth District Supervisor Ted Williams responded:

“Williams has not given up, but yelling at the Planning Director isn’t a solution. Our ordinance has problems, including lack of discretionary process for staff to make common sense decisions. A good handful of applicants don’t respond. Have they given up? Can they not afford follow through? Was the application just insurance against enforcement action? Who knows. In many cases the State is a block. I’m doing everything I can outside of the board chambers to understand the specifics of the situation and find to remedy. The problem isn’t Brent.”

To which we replied: “Fair enough. But I never said Mr. Schultz was the problem. Nor did I advocate yelling at the Planning Director. Clearly it’s bigger than the Planning Director who has bigger things on his plate than pot. But he has a tendency to gloss over things and hope a lot without even offering deadlines for when things will happen, or at least when things ought to happen or an explanation thereof. One of these days he’ll have to stop claiming that he’s new and still diving deep into the problem, and take more specific responsibility for what he says he’s gonna do. A supervisor shouldn’t have to try to figure it out, staff should be able to reliably pinpoint the specifics. This has already gone on way too long and Msrs. Shultz and Connell have had plenty of time to “understand the specifics” while the County subsidizes the pot program. With the recent uptick in pot prices along with the difficulty of getting legal, I suspect the permit/black market scales are shifting and permit applications will be abandoned and new ones (which we never see reported, btw — is anybody still applying?) will drop off even more.”

Supervisor Williams then provided one of the clearest assessments of the pot permit situation we’ve seen so far:

“Cheap labor, land and energy are critical ingredients for cannabis cultivation viability in a regulated market. We have none of the above. This was a place to hide cultivation and enforcement operations were a powerful subsidy in maintaining product price. Objectively, if the success metric for our cannabis program is transition of black market to regulated market, we failed. Proof of prior cultivation for eligibilty, F1 occupancy for trimming pot, delays, lost paperwork, changing processes, tax on what could have been produced, demolition permits for seasonal hoop houses, a state model rigged to benefit large corporations — many farms will not survive the transition. Now what? Some have argued that our craft flower will maintain a premium, but in talking to cultivators about performing a double blind test of Mendocino’s best against “the Walmart of weed” from Santa Barbara, it’s my impression we’d be unable to differentiate. The Mendocino allure might hold some value, especially if we promote county of origin, but does this translate to enough dollars to maintain viability? Cultivators in our prohibitionist model of limited crop size must maintain $x per lb to sustain operations. In a state-wide market with interstate commerce on the horizon, our production limits will not influence price as we become a rounding error. What happens when the market price is 1/2 x? As cultivators leave, cash flow will continue to evaporate county-wide, property values in some areas will decline, leaving the county with less revenue. Some black market cultivators with awareness of the trajectory have decided to ride it out until the end rather than spend potentially hundreds of thousands to jump through hoops. Farms that survive the shake up against the odds will do so with business acuity. Our goal should be to stop the bleeding of county funds, adjust policy to be competitive with other counties, prevent government intrusion of farms beyond what is necessary to protect property rights and the environment and perhaps work with industry to promote our county’s brand.”


For Your No Good Deed Goes Unpunished File.

The California Policy Center recently published a comprehensive and well-reasoned report on homelessness and the “Homeless Industrial Complex” in California by Edward Ring.

Toward the end of his piece Ring says that the first step in any “solution” to the homeless problem is: “Pick Up the Trash: With Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and other cities already facing the imminent threat of a breakout disease epidemic, this measure comes before all others. It ought to be easy, America’s cities in the second half of the 20th century were not inundated with tons of uncollected trash on the streets.”


A recent Ukiah High Schodol grad named Luca Szabo has apparently taken this advice to heart. Along with several fellow students and recent grads, Szabo’s Senior Project to pick up trash from Ukiah area homeless camps has morphed into a collaboration with the Sonoma County based Clean River Alliance to provide trash bags, shelter and service info, trash pick-up and disposal at Ukiah area homeless assistance facilities. Szabo made a polished and articulate presentation to the Supervisors last Tuesday, describing how his program has matured and how he hopes to slowly grow it so that the inevitable trash from homeless people and their camps is bagged and picked up in a timely manner. The core of the idea is to involve the homeless themselves in managing their own trash. 

It’s an all-volunteer program which hands out trash bags at local shelters and services and picks them up after they’re full at specific locations and on a specific schedule. Although it’s still early, the modest, very-low-cost program seems to be working to reduce trash accumulation and perhaps reduce disease rates in the Ukiah area. It is modeled after the similarly successful and longer-term Clean River Alliance program in Sonoma County.

BUT.

No sooner had the young and energetic Mr. Szabo completed his presentation than Supervisor John McCowen — who makes it a personal priority to keep homeless people and their camps away from the Russian River — said that the program was “enabling” the camps that he’s trying to eliminate. McCowen said that picking up the trash just helps homeless people stay near the riverbanks where they trespass, defecate and sometimes abandon their camps, particularly during winter rains when abandoned camp junk gets washed into the river — and that simple trash pickup won’t make a dent in those larger problems, and may encourage the camps. 

McCowen was followed by some Ukiah area farmers who echoed McCowen’s complaint decrying the many problems that the homeless create on their farmland near the riverbank.

Ukiah Police Chief Justin Wyatt and Mendocino Sheriff Tom Allman, while grudgingly acknowledging that the program might help, expressed similar concerns about trespassing — particularly on vineyard land. They wanted Mr. Szabo and crew to work more closely with law enforcement.

As valid as the gripes about the homeless from McCowen, the farmers and the cops may be, attributing the litany of them to Mr. Szabo seems badly misplaced. 

Hundreds of thousands of dollars go to “helping” the homeless in Mendocino County every year — albeit to people who haven’t even begun to implement the Marbut report on local homelessness they were ordered to implment more than a year ago — but nobody ever accuses them of “enabling” the homeless or of encouraging trespassing or vineyard defecation or the rest. 

If there are problems with Mr. Szabo’s trash pick-up program or if they are in fact connected to riverside homeless camps, deal with them as they arise. But why pile on the a kid who’s got a practical, low-cost idea to make a dent in the trash problem — including trash that may be diverted from riverbank areas?

PS. As Bruce McEwen noted to me recently, you can find trash — especially bigger pieces of trash like used carpet, old mattresses, appliances, etc. — dumped illegally all over Ukiah. Dump fees are expensive. And some NON-homeless people are irresponsible with their trash. But the trash from non-homeless sources is frequently blamed on the homeless and simply left to Ukiah businesses, offices, residents, cops and to deal with as best they can. 

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