A workshop next week could determine whether and how the Riverside County Board of Supervisors allows marijuana-related commerce in the county’s unincorporated communities.

The public workshop “will be an opportunity for board members to discuss whether they wish to leave existing ordinances about cannabis in place or make changes,” said county spokesman Ray Smith.

“If board members are inclined to make any changes regarding cannabis in the unincorporated county, the staff report will include options for their consideration.”

What comes out of the workshop could mark a departure from a course the five-member board set last August, when supervisors asked staff to begin crafting rules that would allow marijuana dispensaries and pot-related businesses in unincorporated areas, where they are currently banned.

The 2016 passage of Prop. 64, which legalized recreational marijuana in California, lets cities and counties decide whether to allow the marijuana trade in their jurisdictions and, with voter consent, to impose local taxes on marijuana sales. Fifty-one percent of voters in unincorporated areas voted for Prop 64 compared to 57 percent statewide.

Half of Riverside County’s 28 cities allow some kind of cannabis business to operate in their borders, according to The Cannifornian’s searchable database of local marijuana policies.

The most cannabis-friendly cities in the county are Cathedral City, Desert Hot Springs, Moreno Valley, Palm Desert, Lake Elsinore and Blythe. Those cities allow several types of operations, from cultivation to distribution. However, Moreno Valley, Lake Elsinore and Blythe are still getting their permitting programs in place, so no industry businesses are licensed yet in those cities.

While there’s not a lot of enthusiasm on the board for legalized marijuana, the thinking has been that the county needs rules in place to deal with marijuana grows and dispensaries that sometimes pop up in unincorporated neighborhoods.

Back in August, the plan was to have staff and an ad-hoc committee of supervisors Kevin Jeffries and Chuck Washington develop regulations for marijuana commerce in areas of the county that aren’t part of a city.

Those rules would be tied to a November ballot measure imposing a local marijuana sales tax to cover regulatory costs. If it fails, the county would end its regulatory effort and marijuana businesses would remain outlawed.

It’s not clear whether that plan will continue after Tuesday’s workshop. Washington said he’s opposed to a ballot measure, saying it’s “too expensive with too much uncertainty.”

“In essence, the question to be asked (at the workshop) is: ‘Shall we keep our current ban in place … or should we move forward with some kind of regulatory structure in place to manage legalized marijuana?’” Washington said.

“If the latter is the choice, then we will need to answer the questions of one, how do we pay for the cost to manage regulation? Two, how much cost can marijuana commerce absorb in Riverside County before pushing individuals or companies into the black market? Three, how do we manage the banking issues that other states have encountered? Four, what will the feds do in light of the fact that marijuana is still illegal under federal law? (And) five, what tool do we use to collect funds to support regulation?”

Jeffries, who opposed Prop. 64, said that in light of news that the federal government won’t pursue “small cannabis concerns,” he will support “a regulatory and revenue plan to ensure that the industry pays for its costs and impacts on our unincorporated communities and county services.”

He added the county “has spent significant tax dollars enforcing the current prohibition” and has reduced the number of illegal dispensaries in the unincorporated community where he lives from 11 to three.

Supervisor V. Manuel Perez said he supports the regulation effort. “There are opportunities for much-needed revenue and economic development that could benefit Riverside County if we move forward in this direction,” he said.

“When we discussed this at the board, in August, I outlined a number of factors that should be considered in the potential ordinances, including funding for youth development programs and public safety and to prevent abuse by youth.  We should be open to all ideas. And community outreach is an important component.”

Supervisors Marion Ashley and John Tavaglione were more guarded going into the workshop.

“The workshop will be an opportunity to learn from the hard work the (marijuana) ad hoc committee has conducted over the past year and to listen to any recommendations they may have,” said Ashley, who has said that recreation marijuana is wrong. “It would be premature to make a determination as to the county’s next steps prior to that presentation and the opportunity to hear from our constituents.”

Tavaglione said: “I’m not an advocate of legalization, though I know many who are.  As for where I will be when this comes back to our board, I’m going to listen carefully to the debate among my colleagues and the attending audience attempt to make a fair decision at the time.”

The Riverside County Board of Supervisors will hold a public workshop to discuss whether and how to let marijuana commerce operate in the county’s unincorporated areas.
When: 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 20.
Where: First-floor board meeting room, 4080 Lemon St., Riverside.

Reporter Brooke Edwards Staggs contributed to this report.