Calaveras County Pivots, Will Consider Large-Acreage Grow Model

In California’s Calaveras County, the battle over commercial cannabis cultivation rages on.

The Gold Country enclave’s plan to reinvigorate its economy through cannabis farming sparked a seething showdown among locals earlier this year and led to a debate over whether to ban cannabis cultivation completely.

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But just as the dispute seemed ready to boil over—two county supervisors stomped out of a meeting, another called for the recall of a colleague, and a farmer simply resorted to singing—the battle suddenly paused. After two days of hearings that drew overflow crowds to the Calaveras supervisors’ boardroom Oct. 17-18, the board abruptly declined to vote on a measure to ban all commercial cultivation.

Instead, the Board of Supervisors on Oct. 24 voted 3–2 to work toward crafting a far stricter regulatory program, one that critics say could decimate the county’s cannabis production.

“Basically what they’re proposing is a ban under a different name,” said Bob Bowerman, Calaveras County director for the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), “And that’s unacceptable.”

The proposal stands to dramatically reduce the number of allowable farms in the county, which has already collected $5 million in cannabis taxes and $3.7 million in 2016-17 application fees from more than 700 cannabis farmers.

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Here’s what folks in Calaveras can expect:

  • Another surefire drama in December as supervisors in the county of 45,000 residents consider a plan to cap the number commercial cannabis farms at 50. The proposal would allow cultivation on large properties only—perhaps 50 acres or greater.
  • A well-funded June 2108 ballot fight. Cannabis advocates are expected to qualify an initiative seeking to allow all previously approved farms to continue operating. The measure would also permit outdoor cannabis farming on parcels of five acres or more.
  • Lawsuits—perhaps a bundle of them. The county’s 187 already-permitted and tax-paying cannabis farms may seek legal redress, as might 316 other farms with applications still being processed under the county’s current regulations.
  • A continued push for an all-out ban from residents who say they’re fed up with the growing number of farms, including both licensed cultivators and illicit growers, some of whom operate on two-acre, residential lots.

In the meantime, expect plenty more cannabis confusion. “We’re still weeks away from being able to make a decision,” said Board of Supervisors Chairman Michael Oliveira, a retired Oakland police officer and former sheriff’s deputy who has indicated cautious support for a regulated and taxed marijuana economy.

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“The ban issue is still alive,” Oliveira told Leafly. “I haven’t made up my mind. I need to look at the regulations. I’m very concerned whether we will have the resources for law enforcement under either scenario. And if we go with a ban, we’re going to lose all our revenue from [cannabis] taxes.”

“This is my county, and I don’t want to see it going into bankruptcy.”
Bob Bowerman, Calaveras NORML

At the October board meetings, two supervisors—Dennis Mills and Clyde Clapp—fought fiercely for a commercial cannabis ban. Supervisor Jack Garamendi, the target of a recall by ban supporters, backed continuing local regulations. The swing vote came down to Gary Tofanelli, a supervisor many residents had pegged as an advocate of the ban.

Then, at the Oct. 24 meeting, Tofanelli, a steel construction contractor, plunked down a stack of regulations his own industry faces.

“I’m still in favor of a ban, but I could consider regulations,” Tofanelli said.  He urged that Calaveras County adopt a strict package of cannabis rules that would keep farms far from residential neighborhoods, significantly curb their number, and require water and soil sampling for pesticides, fertilizers, and other chemical contaminants.

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“I won’t vote for anything that does not include all this,” he said.

Following his comments, the board voted to direct the county’s planning staff to study and draft a plan based on Tofanelli’s guidelines.

For his part, Calaveras NORML’s Bowerman, a retired advertising executive, is already working to publicize a June 2018 ballot fight to settle the Calaveras cannabis issue once and for all. A legal, regulated cannabis industry, he said, could be a huge boon to the county’s ailing coffers.

“I think what is going to come up before the Board of Supervisors in December is a major bait-and-switch,” he said. “The attorneys for the farmers are lining up [to sue]. This is my county, and I don’t want to see it going into bankruptcy. I’m working 24/7 to avoid that.”