By Alex Schwantner
Consisting of Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties, the area known as the Emerald Triangle holds a reputation for its ongoing history as a hub for cannabis cultivation. Now, nearly 20 years after California’s Medical Marijuana Program roll out, the region’s first licenses for commercial cannabis production have been issued.
Mendocino county approved licenses for two substantial grow operations – Honeydew farms LLC and Blessed Coast LLC – seen by some as the start of a new era for the cannabis industry.
Unsurprisingly voices of concern were raised, in particular those of some cannabis advocacy groups concerned the county is catering largely to big businesses.
Taking effect last February, Humboldt county’s commercial medical marijuana program sets land use regulations and establishes a permitting system for cultivation, processing and manufacturing operations. The county’s program was created in compliance with California’s Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety act which created a state-wide licensing system expected to take effect in 2018. Hopeful cannabis business owners must be licensed on both state and local levels.
Alex Moore along with his wife Miranda own Honeydew Ranch where they had been cultivating shy of an acre of cannabis prior to the county’s permitting system implementation. With the approval of their license they seek to expand their operation to seven acres of outdoor grow space. Moore stated that some of the space will be leased to other growers and with plans for vertical integration they aim to be an “all-inclusive company”
“We decided that it was time to come out as supporters of this industry,” he said. “I’m a businessman and entrepreneur and this is just a business opportunity that we’re going to take advantage o. I have no moral issues with cannabis. I think the world is a better place because of it.”
Due to the size of the operation Moore was seeking to establish, additional approval by the County Planning Commission was necessary. Approval was gained in a 4 to 1 vote with state and local support.
While California’s Medical Marijuana Program came into being nearly 20 years ago, the state has until recently neglected to regulate the industry that has emerged as a result. Calling for patience, County Senior Planner Steve Lazar stated “…the idea that someone was well-positioned and ready to get their stuff in
— that isn’t really true … We expect a lot of people are going to take the maximum amount of time.”
Moore, however claims to be well postured despite the intended size of his operation after a decade of preparation. Prior to the approval of his application his sites had already been permitted and undergone environmental review, with extra steps taken assure readiness by hiring an environmental consulting firm.
“I think for a lot of people it’s kind of daunting, but there is definitely quite a few firms, companies, engineers that are very well-versed in this process,” Moore said. “If people are not knowing what to do, they should just hire someone to do it for them.”
Honeydew’s approval came second to that of Blessed Coast LLC, a 10,000 sq. ft. mixed-light farm in the Carlotta area.
Opposition within the license review process claimed the approval went against the county’s desire to have an industry made up of smaller growers – a sentiment echoed by local cultivators.
California Growers Association Executive Director Hezekia Allen described the regulatory process as being somewhat cumbersome for small scale growers. This, he says, could deter them fromcoming into the regulated market.
Humboldt-Mendocino Marijuana Advocacy Project or HUMMAP offers one of the louder voices of opposition to the county’s perceived big money favoritism.
“The county is catering to the greedheads,” HUMMAP spokesman Robert Sutherland said. “… Instead, we need to focus on an industry that continues to honor its reputation for quality. People will buy based on their knowledge that it’s coming from a hands-on, very conscientious and responsible handler.”
Calling for greater restriction of the size and scale of local cannabis industry, HUMMAP took legal action against the government claiming the county’s marijuana program failed to address environmental impact concerns. A settlement was reached earlier this month when the county agreed to conduct environmental reviews in drafting future medical marijuana regulations.
Aside from the two already approved there have been more than 100 applications submitted with hundreds more expected in the coming months.
The county Planning and Building Department created a new Cannabis Service Division to take on the expected workload increase. Even so, Lazer – one of the members of the new division – feels with all of the applications coming in it is insufficient to cover the onslaught.
The county is accepting applications until the end of this year at which point begins a process of environmental review will commence in the hopes of soon expanding the industry. Presently, new cultivation is only permitted on prime agricultural land. This policy was set in place to assure the program was legally defensible but has received recent criticism. County Planning Commissioner Lee Ulansey stated the program “created a monstrous boon for a couple of landowners to the detriment of the rest of the county.”
Pending environmental review, the county aims to make new areas available for cultivation before approving further licenses.
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