California Senate OKs bill extending cannabis cultivation permits

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Thousands of legal cannabis cultivators statewide, including nearly 100 in Sonoma County, would get some enforcement relief from a bill by state Sen. Mike McGuire and Assemblyman Jim Wood that won strong bipartisan approval Thursday in the Senate.

The bill, supported by more than 200 organizations including the Mendocino and Humboldt county boards of supervisors, passed on a 32-4 vote and now goes before the Assembly.

McGuire, a Healdsburg Democrat, said the measure would enable state officials to extend nearly 7,000 temporary cannabis growing licenses through mid-September. The bill, SB 67, is intended to prevent what he called “good actors” from reverting to the underground industry that existed before voters made recreational marijuana legal in 2016.

The temporary licenses, which the state stopped issuing on Dec. 31, will all expire by July, at which point there would be no authorized cannabis market “and a crisis will take hold,” McGuire said.

In March, more than 1,000 temporary licenses issued by the California Department of Food and Agriculture expired and another 4,000 will, by law, expire this month, he said.

Many of the temporary permit holders are small family pot farms that have existed for generations on the North Coast and will, without an extension, “drop into the black market literally overnight,” McGuire said. “Nobody wants that.”

Growers in Sonoma County hold 98 temporary licenses and some have already expired, said Tim Ricard, the county’s cannabis program manager.

Technically, growers with expired licenses cannot continue to raise marijuana or sell it into the regulated marketplace, but county officials have decided not to shut down operators who have applied for an annual or provisional state license and are in compliance with local regulations, Ricard said.

The state, however, has been sending menacing letters to businesses whose temporary licenses expire, warning them to cease activity “immediately,” the Associated Press reported.

Ricard said the state needs to either clear the backlog of license applications or “create some type of legislative fix or extension,” such as the McGuire bill.

Sonoma County has a backlog of its own, having issued 44 cannabis permits with 128 more under review, Ricard said. Fifty-six of the applicants with pending permits are allowed to operate during the review process.

Cannabis permitting is a two-step process in which applicants must first gain a local permit and then apply for a state license. Both state and local officials scrambled to establish a structured market that opened in January 2018, with field-to-consumer regulations and inspections along with taxes to capture a piece of the multibillion-dollar industry moving out of the legal shadows.

Critics have said the taxes put law-abiding operators at a disadvantage and contributed to an ongoing illegal market.

Wood, a Santa Rosa Democrat, said in a statement he appreciated Gov. Gavin Newsom’s move to expedite the state licensing process, but the bill is needed “to address the large number of temporary licenses out there.”

Lindsay Robinson, executive director of the California Cannabis Industry Association, said in a statement the bill is “critical for stabilizing the regulated cannabis industry.”

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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