Northern California

Humboldt County seeks to revamp cannabis permitting

The head of Humboldt County’s Cannabis Services Division says his department has learned its lessons from the first round of cannabis business and will be working to create a smoother process for those wishing to enter the legal market under the county’s newly expanded industry rules.

For those people that don’t comply, the county is already beginning enhanced enforcement efforts through the help of state, local and satellite enforcement.

“We’re also working on expanding our efficiency with code enforcement and looking at bringing in some new specialized people to help us with some elements of that, so that’s pretty exciting to have a little more bandwidth there,” county Planning and Building Department Director John Ford said.

Humboldt County agricultural/weights and measures inspector Bryan Atkinson inspects a local cannabis farm in March. The county plans to process about 600 temporary permits issued to local cannabis farmers by September. (Humboldt County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office — Contributed)

The county is now one month into its newly expanded cannabis industry, which allows for people to apply for cannabis permits for an expanded catalogue of business types including farms, processing, testing, tourism, bud-and-breakfasts and all-in-one microbusinesses, to name a few.

Prior to these new rules taking effect, nobody was able to submit an application for a cannabis business since Dec. 30, 2016, which was the cutoff date under the county’s first and more limited cannabis rules that took effect in February 2016.

Ford, who oversees the department’s cannabis division, said it has about 1,600 applications from the first round of permitting to sort through, with about 250 permits having been issued — mostly for cannabis farms.

The county received more than 2,300 cannabis business applications by the December 2016 deadline, about 1,500 of which were received two weeks before the deadline. More than 2,000 applications were incomplete.

“That’s the normal process for most other planning applications and it is a lesson learned from the last round that when we don’t get complete applications, it’s very hard to try to get them complete and to process them, basically,” Ford said.

So now anyone wanting to turn in application under the county’s new marijuana rules must first complete an application assistance training, with training sessions ongoing. All applications must be complete prior to them being submitted. No applications under the new cannabis rules have been turned in to the department yet, according to Ford.

Ford said they are also making internal changes.

“Basically, what we’re going to do is move away from the process we’ve been doing things and we’re going to go ahead and assign all active permits to planners,” Ford said. “There will be planners assigned to every project that has been deemed complete.”

Before this, permit applications went through an “assembly line” process in which they were handed off to different cannabis planners throughout the process.

Terra Carver, executive director of the cannabis trade organization Humboldt County Growers Alliance, said her organization does not have a position on the changes, but said the reaction from its members is varied. Carver said some members have raised concerns about latecomers to the legalized industry having an easier time getting through legalization when those who paved the way had to work through a brand new regulatory system.

“I have membership that would be upset because they feel they have paved the way and the road was hard to pave,” Carver said.

Other members are happy they signed up earlier, Carver said.

“Those who did sign up now are happy that they did because the transition is going to be much more difficult for those who sat on the fence,” Carver said.

With Humboldt County being the first county in the state to pass its own cannabis industry rules, Carver said it has allowed local producers and businesses to participate in the growing statewide market. With new state rules that took effect July 1 only allowing for pre-tested, pre-packaged products to be sold to customers, Carver said that there has been a “massive uptick in requests for compliant product from distributors” in Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Jose, San Diego and San Francisco.

“We’re starting to really see the supply chain connect and our compliant Humboldt product is in demand,” Carver said.

The county has also extended the expiration date for up to 600 temporary permits that were issued to local farmers last year. These temporary permits allowed pre-existing marijuana farmers — defined as farmers who had been operating prior to Jan. 1, 2016 — to receive temporary permits that limited them to growing what they were in 2016. The reason for this was to allow these farmers to apply for a state cannabis license and be able to operate once the statewide market opened at the start of 2018.

These temporary permits were set to expire on June 30, but that was pushed back to Sept. 30.

“Our hope and intention is to take action on all those applications by Sept. 30,” Ford said.

Carver said that most of their organization’s members are using temporary permits currently and “are sitting fairly pretty in the process right now.”

To address the thousands of illicit farms estimated to remain within the county, Ford said the department with the aid of the sheriff’s office and Department of Fish and Wildlife plan “to hit at least 500 this season,” with about 250 notices of violation having been sent out.

Farmers who do not comply face up to $10,000 per day fines, but can enter into compliance agreements with the county and only pay a one-day penalty for each violation. These plans would allow farmers to bring their farm back up to code within a certain time frame.

Ford previously said that these enforcement notices had resulted in many people working to come into the legal market, and he said last week that there is still a “fairly positive response.”

The county also has a contract in place that will give it access to frequently updated satellite images, which will be able to determine whether a farm has remained in compliance. Ford said there has been concerns about invasion of privacy and that the county now has access to super high-resolution images.

“It’s not that at all. The resolution is not better than what we already have,” Ford said. “The key is the frequency at which the images are collected. Five different images a year allows us to see what’s going on. That’s the key thing.”

At the same time, state and federal law enforcement officials have stated they will increase pressure against conspiracy crimes and cartels associated with the illicit cannabis market.

About $14 million of state budget went to creating five investigative teams in the state Attorney General’s Office to look into those crimes and marijuana mail deliveries.

Will Houston can be reached at 707-441-0504.