The Board of Supervisors spent over four hours last Tuesday discussing medical marijuana regulation and taxation. Again. The discussion assumed both were coming right up.
Many members of the public spoke — this subject is the one of two that draws such intense interest, the other being the County's Animal Shelter or animal-related issues.
Pot growers and dispensary operators thought the proposed taxation would be unfair to their small businesses by being too high, thus depriving their patients of their medicine. These people are the most selfless capitalists we have in America, laboring long and hard in the service of the millions of twenty-year-olds with bad backs.
When Board Chair Dan Gjerde opened the subject for public comment he pointed out that the Board had already decided that they were going to put the taxation and a related tax collection ordinance on the November ballot, adding that there wasn't much point to comments from the public given that the voters would decide matters. "So go ahead, waste our time," Gjerde said, a boldly sarcastic remark that some of the pot people took obligatory umbrage at, but, as a person long experienced with single issue mobs, Gjerde knew that the assembled stoners would have to consume the day.
Mike Sweeney. Of all people. The former Maoist and only suspect in the 1990 car bombing of his former wife, a woman devoted to the herb; Sweeney, the County's most thoroughly re-invented person who now functions as Mendo's lead garbage bureaucrat, is a strict constructionist when it comes to the County's primary export crop:
"In dealing with this issue you work in the shadow of the Heritage Initiative that marijuana growers have qualified for the November ballot. I will call that for what it is, The Marijuana Takeover Act. It creates an existential threat to our community. It would legalize commercial marijuana in every residential neighborhood. Marijuana plantations of up to one acre could reach within 30 feet of a neighbor's property and within 100 feet of a neighbor's house. It would abolish the right of a neighbor to complain about the odor of marijuana since marijuana grows would be covered by the right to farm ordinance which effectively blocks nuisance complaints. It would allow marijuana cultivation and sales 400 feet closer to our schools and parks. It would eliminate the enforcement of rules of any kind including residency requirements, by replacing the Sheriff with a simple procedure that would be so weak and slow as to be nonexistent. It would allow an unlimited number of dispensaries in commercial zoning. Incredibly, it would make explosive butane processing of marijuana a principal permitted use in all industrial zones, even though this dangerous practice has caused innumerable fires. It would be yet another loud siren call that if you want to make a fast buck growing lots and lots of marijuana, come to Mendocino County. And it would supersede any marijuana ordinance that you might enact and it prohibits you from making even the slightest alteration in the Marijuana Takeover Act for one year and nine months. And then only if you adhere to the purposes and intent of the initiative. Any additional time or money spent on an ordinance by you, your staff or your CEQA consultants would be a total waste if the Marijuana Takeover Act wins at the ballot only 98 days from today. I believe it can be defeated only if that part of the community that doesn't like this present impact of marijuana feels that an electoral fight would be worth the effort. These folks may feel as I do that you would go ahead anyway and adopt your own ordinance that is too permissive for marijuana growing. You could reassure these folks by suspending your consideration of an ordinance until we know the result of the November election. Then, if the Marijuana Takeover Act wins, you will have saved a lot of wasted time and money. But if it loses, you would then be on stronger ground to make essential choices about how much commercial cannabis you could allow and where, how much it should be isolated from neighbors, and what permit conditions you should require. No one can accuse this board of failing to work hard on marijuana ordinances which we need. You and your staff have proved that you are prepared to move ahead. Please consider however the suspending consideration so that the voters can approach this issue knowing that the board will take a fresh look following the election.”
Sweeney is right, of course. Any guy who can blow up his ex-wife in the middle of a major American city at high noon and get away with it is not a guy you can accuse of stupidity. But for all the clarity Sweeney brought to the issue the ballot measure will proceed. Sweeney's predictions will be realized. And then some.
Ukiah Attorney Larry Rosen entered the following comments into the Supervisor's pointless pot discussion:
”I want to suggest to you that I am glad to be here talking to you about medical cannabis. But my neighbors are afraid to. I ran into one of my neighbors on the way out here and I said, Please come join us, there's going to be an open discussion at the Board of Supervisors meeting. And she said, Oh no, I can't do that; I'm still in the closet. Well, I'm sorry folks, but I haven't been in the closet for years and I'm not about to start now being in the closet about cannabis. Which raises a question for the building department. I went into the building department this morning to get a permit for an agricultural building which is set on my land, on an existing vineyard. And they gave it to me. Wonderful! The only problem was in the application I put in, they said, what's it for? And I said well, it's for my grapes and for my cannabis. And they said, Oh no, you have to erase that. You have to use a different form. You can't put cannabis or the building department won't accept the form. I said, what do you want me to lie for? I'm not in the closet. I'm growing pot! Why do you want me to lie about what I'm planning on doing? Oh, and by the way, I should tell you that I discovered and so did the building department that there is an agricultural fee exemption that if you put up a building that is strictly for agricultural purposes — you are not going to include a bathroom and other kinds of things that would make it a place to live — I saved $600 by reminding the building department to read the ordinance that's already in the Mendocino County ordinance. So maybe it's the case that the fees and taxes and penalties and other things that you are going to do are going to be compensated for by the money we will save on the agricultural buildings we are going to build to grow medical marijuana. The other thing I want to do is I want to give you a gift because this is medicine. Okay?”
[Rosen brandishes a bottle of wine.]
Supervisor Carre Brown: “We can't, we can't. We can't accept gifts, sir.”
Rosen: [Places the bottle of wine at the recorder's desk] as he says, “This was made from grapes grown on my property. Certified organic. Made by some people down in Nelson's south of Ukiah. We paid $8000 to have two years worth of grapes done. That's medicine! You can have it. I give that bottle to the Board of Supervisors, and enjoy it please. Except I have to caution you, I can't sell it to you. State law will not let me sell it to you because I didn't put the right kinds of labels on that. Sorry. But I can give it to you. I'm not sure you can drink it because even though it's been a form of medicine for over 3000 years, I'm not sure that you're going to be able to drink it. So let me ask, If you don't want to drink it, put it in the same cage where the Sheriff is putting the cannabis that he takes off people's property.”
County Counsel Katherine Elliott: “Chair Gjerde, we are going to need that bottle of wine returned to Mr. Rosen.” [Laughs.]
Sherry Glaser stood up from the audience, picked up the wine bottle from the Recorder's desk, triumphantly raised the bottle, and walked out with it to applause from the audience.
Rosen returned to the podium later in the meeting:
”I want to thank you. I got a hint that my own personal problem with the urgency ordinance may be resolved. I thank County Counsel for having changed the ordinance so that it isn't unconstitutional with respect to —
Supervisor John McCowen: “Please comment to the item we are on now.”
Rosen: “With respect to the item we are on now which is taxation. Personally I am in favor of taxation. I am not opposed to you taxing. What I am opposed to is two measures on the ballot, one the [state level] Heritage Initiative and then your proposal which both talk about taxes. And none of you have ever responded to my written request, my official written request: What's the difference between the two? Why are you proposing your ordinance instead of the Heritage Initiative? And how am I going to make up my mind on how to vote on either of those? Let me put it in a slightly different context because I'm an attorney and I deal with these kinds of things, not in the government context, but in the private context, all the time. About a year ago I had a client who was trying to license their software to a very big company, Verizon. They said, We want to license it. So great! We sent them a three-page agreement. They wrote back and said, Here's a 63 page agreement that we would rather you use. I said, No! We can't do it! There's no way I could be sure that my client would be able to enforce a 63-page agreement. Couldn't do it! There was a comment just a little while ago about how we have a state ordinance, or a state law, and then we have this growing ordnance, and then we have the Heritage Initiative. And I can assure you, I am an attorney, I read these things. So I don't know what the hell you're talking about in there. I don't know what the difference is. So yes, you want taxes, I want taxes. I don't want potholes in my roads. I want things taken care of. I want the staff to have more money. I want problems to be taken care of in the community I love. But I don't want some 60 page ordinance or some 30 page ordnance that I won't even know how to follow or be able to advise either myself or my clients or my friends what the hell to do about it. It's just noise. I proposed earlier a three line ordinance. I don't mean it should be three lines, it's going to have to be 50 lines, it's going to have to be five pages. But it doesn't have to be 60 pages and it doesn't have to be 30 pages and it doesn't have to duplicate state law.”
In the end the board approved placing the pot tax and cultivation measures on the November ballot. The County's taxation measure would implement the taxation scheme as originally proposed by County Counsel Elliott, along with an ordinance that would allow the State Board of Equalization to collect the tax and distribute the proceeds to the County, and an advisory measure that would tell the Board that most of the tax revenues should go for illegal cultivation enforcement, local fire departments and supplementary mental health services.