For about seven years, Keala Peterson’s family has grown cannabis on a terraced hillside in the rugged hills north of Guerneville, first for a cancer-stricken grandfather and eventually for dispensaries.
Peterson, 28, and her mother, Kila Peterson, are partners in a new venture: getting their 5,000-square-foot cannabis patch permitted by Sonoma County and licensed by the state. It’s a gamble whether they’ll earn enough to cover steep startup costs and taxes, but they are deep into the permit application process with Sonoma County staff.
So it was a shock last month when California released a set of rules omitting long-promised provisions that the state would limit the size of licensed cannabis farms to 1 acre until 2023. North Coast cannabis industry advocates fought hard for the five-year transition period to help small-scale cultivators launch before large farms entered the cannabis marketplace.
“It was shocking,” Peterson said.
Called emergency regulations, the rules were published Nov. 16 by the California Department of Food and Agriculture. They allow a person or entity to hold an unlimited number of medium-sized cultivation licenses, which is capped at 1 acre for outdoor and 22,000 square feet for cultivation indoors or in greenhouses, essentially skirting limits on farm size.
The state’s move has put two North Coast lawmakers, State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, and Assemblyman Jim Wood, D-Healdsburg, on a warpath to advocate for the type of small-scale outdoor marijuana farms in the cannabis-rich Emerald Triangle region and its cannabis commerce hub in Sonoma County, and protect local governments’ ability to coax farmers out of the black market to become tax-paying cultivators.
“This is a broken promise,” McGuire said in an interview.
He and Wood fired off a joint letter of complaint Dec. 4 to the state Department of Food and Agriculture’s CalCannabis Cultivation Licensing division director Richard Parrott, stating they are “deeply concerned that a lack of a cap on small cannabis cultivation permits is undermining the desires of California voters through Proposition 64.
“This last minute-revision rolls out the red carpet for large corporations to crush the livelihood of small family farmers who should be given a fair chance to succeed in a regulated market,” the letter states.
Department of Food and Agriculture spokesman Steve Lyle said the agency is evaluating the letter “for a possible response.”
Each county and city has the ability to shape local rules limiting farm size or banning cultivation altogether. Sonoma County allows cannabis farmers to cultivate a maximum of 1 acre. In Humboldt County, the first farm to be approved was cultivating a 7-acre area.
Provisions allowing cultivators to hold an unlimited number of outdoor cultivation licenses were added between Nov. 13 when the department released an environmental impact report and Nov. 16 when the department issued its draft emergency regulations, which have since been finalized by the state Office of Administrative Law. The emergency regulations are current law and will undergo an additional review process in 2018 before becoming permanent law.
Lyle wrote in an email the regulations were changed in response to “stakeholder feedback” but declined to elaborate further. He also said the language of Proposition 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act voters passed in November 2016, didn’t specifically “provide authority to include” limits on the number of licenses held by a single entity.
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