Riverside County is considering a cannabis ordinance that would be among the most permissive in California, allowing just about every type of marijuana business permitted by state law to operate in unincorporated areas.
A draft of the ordinance is set to come before the county Planning Commission at 9 a.m. Wednesday, June 20. The commission will discuss the policies and decide whether to recommend them for approval by the county Board of Supervisors; it’s not clear when, or if, the board will consider the ordinance.
Though Prop. 64 made it legal in California for adults to use cannabis recreationally, the law also gives cities and counties the authority to regulate or ban most other marijuana activities within their borders. The idea of legal cannabis is less popular in Riverside County than in many other parts of the state; just 51 percent of voters in the county voted in favor of Prop. 64, compared with 57 percent approval statewide.
The ordinance being discussed for Riverside County’s unincorporated areas would allow businesses to grow, manufacture, test, distribute and sell marijuana products for both the medical and recreational markets. It also would permit cannabis delivery services, microbusinesses that do multiple activities and cannabis-themed festivals.
There are 58 pages of rules that businesses would need to comply with if they want to set up shop in unincorporated Riverside County. And those rules are in addition to 284 pages of rules issued by the three state agencies charged with regulating the cannabis industry in California.
Cultivation, for example, would only be allowed indoors. All businesses would need major security and odor-control systems. Employees would need to be at least 21 and pass background checks. Also, in Riverside County, retailers would be required to have separate entrances for medical and recreational customers.
The ordinance doesn’t appear to include a cap on the number of businesses allowed in any of the categories. But there are restrictions on zoning.
And the county ordinance would bump up the mandatory distance between marijuana businesses and schools, day care centers or parks, with 1,000-foot separations required rather than the 600-foot requirement in state law. Both moves will limit the number of cannabis businesses allowed in Riverside County simply based on where viable property is available.
To keep county staff from being overwhelmed, officials at a March board workshop suggest limiting the number of dispensary permits in the first year to 19, with a 50-permit limit for growers.
The rules drew criticism from members of the public at the workshop. Many objected to the first-year limit on permits, while others took issue with restrictions on outdoor growing.
The ordinance doesn’t make mention of permitting cannabis lounges, where people can consume marijuana socially the way they can drink alcohol in a bar. The lounges are important, industry advocates say, since Proposition 64 banned all public cannabis consumption and gives landlords the right to regulate marijuana use on private property. That means renters, tourists, and others are often left without a legal place to consume cannabis in California.
The state doesn’t license cannabis lounges, but cities and counties can choose to welcome them. So far, Palm Springs, Desert Hot Springs and West Hollywood are among the only places in Southern California with policies in place to allow for cannabis lounges.
One permit that might draw a lot of interest in Riverside County is the one that would allow temporary cannabis events to take place.
Under new state laws, festivals that let guests buy and consume marijuana onsite must be held on one of the 80 county fairgrounds and agricultural districts scattered throughout the state. And event organizers must first get written permission from the local city council, if the venue is in a city boundary, or the county board of supervisors if it’s in an unincorporated area.
The state-owned Lake Perris fairground is in unincorporated Riverside County, which means the county has authority to approve cannabis festivals at the site. With venues in San Bernardino, Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties so far not welcoming to weed-themed events, this ordinance sets Lake Perris fairgrounds up to become a future hot-spot for cannabis festivals in Southern California.
The ordinance would apply only to businesses that are outside incorporated cities in Riverside County. Anyone who wants to open a marijuana business inside city boundaries would have to comply with that city’s rules for the industry.
If the ordinance passes, Riverside County would be among just 13 percent of California cities and counties that permit recreational marijuana sales.
Only Humboldt, Inyo and Del Norte counties would have slightly more permissive rules on the books, according to a Southern California News Group database of local marijuana policies. Those counties allow adults 21 and over to cultivate up to six cannabis plants for personal use at home indoors or outdoors, while Riverside County blocks all outdoor marijuana gardens.
Imperial County is the only other county in Southern California with such permissive policies on the books.
Whether and how to regulate marijuana commerce in unincorporated communities has been a thorny issue for the five elected supervisors. Dispensaries, crops and the like are currently banned in unincorporated areas, with a limited exemption for medicinal marijuana.
While several supervisors opposed Prop. 64, there’s also a recognition that cannabis businesses are an unregulated fact of life in areas of the county that aren’t part of a city. The push to regulate cannabis businesses stems largely from the desire to crack down on problems caused, for example, by growers who steal water and electricity and generate noxious odors that annoy neighbors.
The board also has heard from cannabis entrepreneurs who see the potential for a booming new industry in the county’s vast swaths of rural acreage.
Originally, the board planned to put a ballot measure before voters in November that would have imposed a local tax on marijuana to pay for regulatory efforts. If the tax failed, the ban on marijuana would have stayed in place.
In March, supervisors voted 3-2 to ditch the tax and use fees from individual agreements with developers to fund enforcement efforts for the new ordinance. That concerns Lanny Swerdlow, a longtime marijuana activist from Whitewater.
“If the ‘fee’ looks like a tax, walks like a tax and smells like a tax then it is a tax and bypassing a vote by calling a tax a ‘community benefit fee’ or any other name is forbidden by Prop. 218,” which requires voter approval of local taxes, Swerdlow wrote in a blog post.
Supervisor Chuck Washington, who championed the developer agreement plan, argued a ballot measure, estimated to cost $750,000, was too costly and allowed all votes in a county of 2.4 million to decide land-use law for 379,000 people who live in unincorporated areas.
IF YOU GO
The Riverside County Planning Commission, in a public meeting, will review a proposed ordinance that would allow and regulate marijuana commerce in the county’s unincorporated areas.
The county Board of Supervisors will have the final say on whether the ordinance becomes law.
When: 9 a.m. Wednesday, June 20.
Where: First-floor board chambers, County Administrative Center, 4080 Lemon St., Riverside.