The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to extend a ban on the cultivation, manufacture, processing, testing, transportation and retail sale of medical and non-medical marijuana in unincorporated areas until a comprehensive regulatory framework can be put in place.
The board also asked the county’s lawyers to work with the district attorney to shut down 70 dispensaries illegally operating in unincorporated areas.
The moves come as the state and various municipalities struggle with the nitty-gritty details of legalizing a long illegal drug.
The state has until Jan. 1 to implement Proposition 64 and begin issuing licenses to sell recreational marijuana, but Supervisor Sheila Kuehl expressed doubts.
“I don’t know whether the state’s really going to get it together by Jan. 1,” Kuehl told her colleagues. “Everybody’s saying no.”
Meanwhile, the county is trying to figure out just how to deal with challenges posed by marijuana businesses.
The fact that marijuana sales are conducted using cash makes dispensaries a target for potentially violent robberies, but also raises odder issues.
Tax collectors worry about handling “suitcases full of cash,” said Joe Nicchitta of the CEO’s Office of Marijuana Management.
Supervisors Hilda Solis and Mark Ridley-Thomas both raised concerns about concentrations of dispensaries in their districts.
“The constituents that I represent are not exactly eager to have these businesses and manufacturing sites next to their homes and schools and parks,” Ridley-Thomas said, telling his colleagues that he wanted to ensure that low-income communities were “not left alone to shoulder the burdens of marijuana legalization.”
Solis called for the enforcement effort.
“The First District has over 40 of these dispensaries,” Solis said. “While there’s a ban, they’re there.”
The vote in favor of enforcement while the ban is in place was unanimous, but Kuehl was more optimistic that legalization would ultimately shut down a black market in cannabis.
“Normalizing it and strictly regulating it is more in our interest,” Kuehl said, envisioning a day when marijuana edibles are widely on offer in restaurants. “It’ll be a list, like the wine list.”
The county has the option under state law to permanently ban cannabis, but the board consensus seemed to be that thoughtful regulation would be best.
Kuehl and Supervisor Janice Hahn proposed a comprehensive regulatory framework, with Kuehl emphasizing the potential to pick up best practices from Oregon, Washington and Colorado, where the drug is already legal.
Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who called for extension of the ban, said she was particularly worried about young people using marijuana.
“I think we all know, and I would argue, this is a gateway drug,” Barger said. “If we do not properly educate, especially our youth, we are going to be creating a whole different set of problems.”
But even Barger agreed, “We cannot ban it, the voters have spoken.”
Community outreach — including educational campaigns for consumers, children and parents — is planned as part of what is expected to be a yearlong process of creating regulations across more than a dozen county departments.
A report back on enforcement is expected in 30 days and regulatory updates will be provided quarterly.
“It’s just a plant” is a common refrain from those who want to legalize the leaf, but a recent study of cannabis production argues that the environmental impact of marijuana farming must be considered — especially as more states move toward further legalization this election season.
The study was conducted by Jake Brenner, an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences at Ithaca College, and Van Bustic, a specialist at the University of California Cooperative Extension. It was published earlier this year in the journal Environmental Research Letters.
The study also highlights the lack of published, peer-reviewed empirical research on all aspects of cannabis agriculture, which is already a multi-billion dollar industry in the United States despite still being listed as a Schedule 1 drug by the federal government.
The amount of land and water used for growing cannabis has not traditionally been a concern, especially when compared to other agricultural products grown in California. But where the cannabis is grown has potential ecological consequences.
Brenner and Bustic examined grow sites in three northern California counties and found that their usual placement had potentially negative impacts on two threatened fish species.
That’s because the sites are typically placed on remote plots of land in forested areas, many on steep slopes. Access roads need to be created and swaths of land cleared for production, regardless of whether the cannabis is grown outdoors or in a greenhouse; that increases potential for soil erosion and chemical run-off into streams in which the Chinook salmon and steelhead trout live.
The fish are also susceptible to harm from a decrease in water flow as a result of the cannabis agriculture.
“Siting grows in areas with better access to roads, gentler slopes, and ample water resources could significantly reduce threats to the environment,” Brenner and Bustic write. “Future cannabis policy should take into consideration the potential for mitigating environmental impacts through land-use planning.”
Know before you grow
Brenner and Bustic say their study, which covers the watersheds of northern California’s Humbolt County, is an example of the sort of survey and analysis that could be done — and is necessary — anywhere cannabis agriculture takes place.
And while California is taking efforts to encourage local governments to create land-use policies for cannabis agriculture, they argue that more research on marijuana farming needs to be done.“Land-use science on cannabis agriculture lags behind research on other crops, but advances in the field will be crucial for predicting future cannabis expansion and moderating its impacts,” they write.
That multi-billion marijuana production industry is only going to grow: This November, voters in Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada will decide whether to allow their states to legalize and tax recreational marijuana; while voters in Arkansas, Florida, Montana and North Dakota will head to the polls to determine whether their states will allow medicinal uses of marijuana, joining the 25 other states that already do so.