State pot growers’ association stays neutral on Prop. 64

Board members meeting in Sacramento unanimously voted to continue their discussion|

SACRAMENTO - The people with the most at stake - marijuana growers, manufacturers and merchants - found themselves divided at a public meeting Thursday over the ballot measure that would legalize recreational marijuana if California voters approve it in November.

The 17 members of the board of the California Growers Association present voted unanimously to continue the cannabis trade association’s neutral position on the Adult Use of Marijuana Act known as Proposition 64, and resume its discussion July 30.

“The vote is not until November, so we do have time,” said Casey O’Neill, the board chairman who is a vegetable and marijuana grower in Laytonville. “I think it’s of utmost importance that the board engage in a full and robust discussion.”

O’Neill, who wore a green T-shirt with the words “I am a farmer” on the front, said in an interview he is personally undecided over the measure.

“There’s too much of it; it’s overprescriptive,” he said, though acknowledging it is “a step forward.”

The board’s decision was made hastily at the close of a 3 1/2-hour meeting at a downtown Sacramento event center dominated by comments and questions about Proposition 64 from an audience of less than two dozen people. The measure, championed by Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, backed by two billionaires and endorsed by a host of officials and organizations, would allow people 21 and over to possess an ounce of marijuana and grow up to six plants at home for personal use. Smoking or ingesting marijuana would be illegal in any public place.

Much of the $2.5 million donated to the AUMA campaign comes from Napster founder Sean Parker and an organization with ties to investor-activist George Soros.

Hezekiah Allen, the 646-member association’s executive director, opened the meeting by sharing the results of a membership online survey this week: 147 members opposed to Proposition 64, 148 in favor and 179 undecided.

“About as divided as you can get,” Allen said. The results would make a fascinating study, he said, but from an organizational point of view are “a very challenging reality.”

The association, including 161 members from the North Coast, is the largest cannabis industry trade group in California and the second largest in the nation, Allen said.

About two-thirds of the members are pot cultivators, with the rest about equally divided among delivery, distribution, manufacturing, testing and dispensary businesses.

Most of the speakers urged the association to remain neutral, the position Allen recommended.

“It’s about fracturing our community,” said Kevin Saunders, a marijuana activist and mayoral candidate in Marina. The credibility of the association would be threatened if it supported the ballot measure or came out opposed, he said.

“We have the eyes of the world, the rest of the United States, upon us,” Saunders said.

Allen and other cannabis advocates have expressed concern that Proposition 64 - with no limit on the size of commercial pot gardens - would prompt big-money investment and consolidation of the industry, overwhelming the traditional small- to medium-sized farms on the North Coast.

In a report to the board, Allen said consolidation will “result in a catastrophic economic collapse for huge swaths of California,” including communities in the Emerald Triangle region of Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties.

Legalization advocates contend the measure would reduce crime, while law enforcement officials say it could lead to increased violence by drawing drug dealers from out of state.

Proposition 64 backers say the taxes on legal marijuana would generate up to $1 billion, and an early poll of likely voters found ?60 percent would support it. Lauren Fraser, a board member representing Sonoma County, said in an interview she supports the association’s continued neutrality, citing pros and cons to the ballot measure.

“We see a huge threat to the longevity and sustainability of the existing cannabis cultivation community,” she said.

But Fraser, a co-founder of the River, a marijuana collective, also said “it’s almost selfish not to consider passing an adult-use initiative that sets a pattern globally.”

Eleanor Kuntz of Santa Rosa, who is forming a mobile cannabis-testing company, joined the association board Thursday.

Neutrality, she said, is “the appropriate position for the collective we represent.”

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

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