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North Coast pot growers, law enforcement wary of marijuana legalization measure

From left, Humboldt County Sheriff Mike Downey, Assemblyman Jim Wood, Rep. Jared Huffman, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and former Humboldt County District Attorney Paul Gallegos discuss pot legalization at a town hall meeting in Garberville on Friday, May 31, 2015. (Glenda Anderson/The Press Democrat)

GUY KOVNER,

California voters will have a chance to legalize recreational marijuana in November, a prospect that is stirring anxiety among some North Coast cannabis farmers while it may also push the nation toward ending the federal prohibition of pot.

If approved by a majority of voters, the measure cleared last week for the fall ballot would complete California’s marijuana odyssey, starting with a first-in-the-nation approval of medical marijuana in 1996. Six years ago, California voters rejected a legalization measure, and last year the state enacted a new law to regulate and tax medicinal cannabis for the first time in 20 years.

“The time has come,” said North Coast Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, whose North Coast district produces 60 percent of the state’s pot crop. Huffman, one of 11 California state and federal legislators endorsing the measure, predicted it will win approval due to public recognition that the only way to deal with pot’s impact — including crime and the poisoning of North Coast forests — is to legalize and regulate it.

“There is a growing consensus that the status quo is dysfunctional,” he said.

Championed by Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and backed by two billionaires, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, known as AUMA, would allow people 21 and over to possess an ounce of marijuana and to grow up to six plants at home for personal use. Smoking or ingesting the psychoactive plant would be illegal in any place open to the public.

Legalization would trim state criminal justice spending by millions of dollars and generate up to $1 billion in taxes, and an early poll of likely voters found 60 percent would support it, a high number for ballot measures coming out of the gate.

If California joins Washington and Oregon in forging a West Coast wall of legal marijuana, Congress will be forced to eventually change federal laws, Huffman said.

Two other states, Colorado and Alaska, already have permitted recreational marijuana, and 11 more are considering the same step this year. If they all do so, almost 60 percent of the nation’s population, 185 million people, would live in places where medical use, recreational use or both are permitted.

But there is also concern in California, largely among law enforcers, over marijuana’s impact on public safety and a pronounced unease among North Coast pot cultivators that legalization will trigger a wave of big business investment that overwhelms longstanding family farms.

“We want to see California have a grower-friendly market,” said Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the 600-member California Growers Association. The group, currently neutral on the ballot measure, will meet Thursday in Sacramento to reconsider its position.

Small farmers account for as many as half of the estimated 50,000 to 60,000 growers of medical and non-medical marijuana, Allen said.

Varied views

Opinions on the legalization measure are mixed in a region where marijuana has come far out of the shadows socially and economically. The Emerald Cup, featuring a contest to pick the best bud and designated smoking areas, draws thousands of people to the Sonoma County Fairgrounds each year. A dispensary owner, Robert Jacob, serves on the Sebastopol City Council.

The marijuana industry is one of the few vibrant economic sectors in the Emerald Triangle of Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties. In Sonoma County, 18 pot dispensaries paid taxes on nearly $31 million in retail sales in 2014.

Craig Litwin, a former Sebastopol mayor and a consultant who specializes in cannabis policy, said AUMA allows responsible adults “to use something that brings them joy.”

He called pot prohibition “a waste of taxpayer dollars,” asserting that there are “better things for law enforcement to spend limited resources on.” Under current law, he added, California also misses out on “an incredible tax base to help restore our crumbling infrastructure.”

The California Legislative Analyst’s Office last year estimated that legalizing recreational marijuana could save the state more than $100 million in criminal justice expenditures while taxes on marijuana production and sales could generate “from the high hundreds of millions of dollars to over $1 billion a year.”

Magnet for dealers?

But top law enforcement officials are wary of a sea change in the state’s pot laws.

Sonoma County Sheriff Steve Freitas opposes the ballot measure because he fears it would make California a magnet for drug dealers from other areas, where pot would remain illegal under federal and state law. The result, he said, could be more violent crime, such as the 2013 triple homicide in Forestville involving a pot deal and a number of out-of-state people.

“I’ve always said violence with marijuana is my main issue,” Freitas said.

Also, Freitas said he is reluctant to “put more things out there that make people intoxicated.” The sheriff acknowledged the use of marijuana for medical purposes, but said a significant portion of that market is driven by people who simply want to get high or make a profit.

“If there is a path for me to support, it would be legalized federally, across the United States, and regulated like tobacco or anything else,” Freitas said.

Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch said she had not read the measure and was taking no position on it.

Pot and politics

The California Democratic Party has endorsed AUMA, but the Sonoma County party has not taken a position, chairman Bleys Rose said.

“Given the pro-pot predilection here, I am sure we will,” he said, most likely at an August meeting.

Mendocino County Supervisor John McCowen said he has mixed feelings about the measure, which he faulted for reducing the penalties for possession of marijuana for sale from felonies to misdemeanors. It also fails to address what McCowen called the “shaky foundation” for medical marijuana, which will be encouraged by the measure’s exemption from current sales tax of people with state patient identification cards.

However, pot legalization in California would be a step toward overturning an ineffective federal prohibition.

“What we’ve been doing for the last 40 years isn’t working,” McCowen said. “We need to grow up (and) recognize that millions of people want it.”

Mendocino Sheriff Tom Allman is adamantly opposed to legalization and said he will campaign against it. “We don’t have recreational Prozac,” he said.

Allman is also skeptical of medical marijuana, asserting there is “a single-digit percentage of medical marijuana patients who are ill” and that the “vast majority use it as a ruse to make money.”

The California State Sheriffs’ Association adopted a statement opposing legalization, saying it will “likely increase drug use and health care costs due to abuse and overdoses,” while the black market for marijuana “will likely remain strong as many drug cartels will not work within a regulatory system.”

“Our message is clear: marijuana is a dangerous drug and California should not legitimize its use,” the statement said.

The California Medical Association endorsed the measure, saying it would “allow state officials to better protect public health by clarifying the role of physicians, controlling and regulating marijuana use by responsible adults and keeping it out of the hands of children.”

Mendocino County District Attorney David Eyster said he is not ready to endorse or oppose AUMA, saying “parts of it have merit; others are wrong-headed.” The county’s experience with medical pot has been difficult, Eyster said, and the ballot measure is unlikely to bring additional clarity.

State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, an author of California’s milestone legislation to regulate and tax medical cannabis, said he needs to have further discussions with Newsom and other AUMA backers before determining his position on the ballot measure.

McGuire said his focus is on seeing that the medical marijuana regulatory structure, due for implementation in 2018, is “rolled out smoothly.”

Key differences

Supporters say the measure incorporates many elements of the medical cannabis law, including a renaming of the new Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation in the Department of Consumer Affairs as the Bureau of Marijuana Control.

But there are two differences that have North Coast marijuana growers worried.

The medical cannabis law sets a cultivation limit of a half-acre indoors and an acre outdoors, while AUMA allows operations of unlimited size, with the stipulation that such licenses cannot be issued until 2023.

And while the medical pot law tightly limits vertical integration for commercial operations, the ballot measure would allow businesses to hold licenses for cultivation, manufacturing, retail sales, distribution and testing.

“They blew it open,” said Allen, whose association lobbied for more protection for small and medium-sized farms.

Industrial-scale pot growing facilities are already being established in places like Adelanto, a desert city that intends to accommodate a half-million square feet of marijuana warehouses that could produce about 50,000 pounds of marijuana up to six times a year.

Traditional North Coast cannabis farmers won’t be able to compete with that, said Tawnie Logan, executive director of the 200-member Sonoma County Growers Alliance. Most members want to see marijuana legalized, but the group is neutral on AUMA.

A constellation of 18 elected officials, 32 organizations and 28 individuals, including travel writer Rick Steves and former haberdasher George Zimmer, backs the measure.

Donations to the AUMA campaign total $2.5 million, including $1 million from Napster founder and former Facebook president Sean Parker, and $500,000 from an organization with ties to billionaire investor-activist George Soros.

Opponents, who have dubbed their campaign “They Got It Wrong Again,” list endorsements from 20 organizations, most related to law enforcement, and 23 elected officials, including state Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, and seven other state legislators.

The group reported $60,000 in donations, with $25,000 from the Teamsters Union and the rest from five law enforcement groups and one hospital organization.

Sacramento lobbyist John Lovell, who heads the anti-AUMA campaign, also worked on the effort to defeat Proposition 19, the marijuana legalization measure turned down by 54 percent of state voters in 2010, despite being outspent 10 to 1 by the measure’s backers who raised about $4.5 million.

The three Emerald Triangle counties voted against Proposition 19, but Huffman believes sentiments have shifted in pot country. And as states continue to go green, Huffman said, Congress will be pressed to end the prohibition on marijuana, including limits on banking by the industry.

“We’re definitely at a tipping point,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any turning back.”

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.