Two marijuana-related research projects were unveiled as the Board of Supervisors considered marijuana regulations, one quantifying the number of outdoor and greenhouse grows in the county and the other focusing on prevalent plant virus infections.
During the board’s Jan. 12 meeting on a draft commercial medical marijuana ordinance, Van Butsic, a faculty member of the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley, gave a presentation updating supervisors on an often asked about subject – the quantity of outdoor and greenhouse grows in Humboldt County.
Butsic specializes in documenting land use changes and his study found that there are 8,400 grow sites in the county as of 2012 to 2013, the most recent period for which clear satellite imagery is available.
The mapping effort encompasses a random sample of 62 of the county’s 112 watersheds, which hold 4,200 grow sites on 1,725 parcels and a total of 300,000 plants. Individual greenhouses were counted as single sites and Butsic said that a total quantification of twice the sample size can be “pretty safely” extrapolated.
The resulting estimate of 8,400 grow sites and 600,000 plants is probably conservative, as the data is a few years old and more sites have likely emerged.
Butsic also reported that 70% of the sites utilized newly-built or unimproved roads, 20% were within 500 meters of streams and 200 sites were within 100 meters of streams.
Half the sites had more than 1,000 square feet of grow area and about 32% of the sites were sized between 5,000 and 20,000 square feet. About 8% were larger than 20,000 square feet.
The findings will help the county gauge permitting volumes. Butsic said that the board’s newly arrived-at 10,000 square feet threshold will mean that 20% of parcels with grow sites will need conditional use permits.
Mid-sized parcels from 20 acres to 160 acres are the “meat and potatoes of where the cultivation sites are,” Butsic continued, with larger-sized parcels accounting for fewer grows.
“We see a lot of action on small parcels but they’re typically small grows,” he said. “In the mid-sized category, you see a lot of grows and a lot of larger grows.”
The most common zoning designation on parcels with cultivation is unclassified, which often includes timberland. Also common are forestry recreation and agricultural zones.
Forestry recreation parcels “are just really incredibly likely to have cultivation sites” when mid-sized parcels are considered, said Butsic.
A different area of research was highlighted during the non-agenda public comment session of the board’s Jan. 11 special meeting on the draft ordinance. The owner of a “non-profit research organization” called Humboldt DNA told supervisors of a multi-year study on a “widespread virus or viruses infecting cannabis seed and nursery stock nationwide.”
A procedure to address the situation is in development and supervisors were requested to include a research permit in the county’s regulatory structure.
But Supervisor Rex Bohn said the cost of the permitting would be an issue and recommended that the research be supported by the industry’s participants.
Supervisor Estelle Fennell agreed but noted the importance of doing research. She said marijuana research was discussed at Humboldt State University’s Jan. 8 Business Leaders Luncheon.
The university is “dealing with it on the periphery,” said Fennell, due to a challenging obstacle.
“The problem is that at least for now, we’re dealing with a substance that is illegal on a federal level and with the university being a recipient of federal funds, it makes it a very difficult proposition,” she continued.
Reiterating Bohn’s recommendation, Fennell added, “It will be in the interest of the industry to make sure this kind of research is done.”