The Marijuana Ordinance

Arcata Plaza, Humboldt County, California.  Photo: Terrence McNally.

Arcata Plaza, Humboldt County, California.  Photo: Terrence McNally.

One of the early trends in marijuana regulation is to include a heavy dose of local governance.  States that have legalized marijuana cultivation, sale, and consumption are being broadly permissive of local governments that want to enact their own marijuana regulations.  Local regulations can be more or less permissive of marijuana activities (often they outright prohibit the cultivation or sale of marijuana), and for states the advantages of local governance are numerous.  Because marijuana regulation is so new, states often have little experience or expertise on the subject, so getting local governments involved helps develop institutional capacities.  It also encourages experimentation with diverse regulatory approaches that might lead to innovative or create policies that can be replicated in other localities or on the state level.  And, since many legalization statutes are created by ballot initiative, allowing local governments to create their own rules makes marijuana regulation a less divisive issue on the state level, where politicians might retain some discomfort with the industry.

Local governments can use their power to enact ordinances to regulate marijuana agriculture, and that power has been utilized in states like California, Colorado, and Washington.  In most cases, though, ordinances make small changes or adopt broad positions.  There are few ordinances that comprehensively address marijuana agriculture.  Humboldt County, however, is an exception, having recently passed the Commercial Medical Marijuana Land Use Ordinance. Humboldt County officials had been working on the Marijuana Ordinance for several years, in collaboration with marijuana industry groups and farming representatives.  The close collaboration between local officials and industry representatives enabled the ordinance drafting process to move forward quickly and with political support, a dynamic that may prove to be equally helpful in other jurisdictions.  

My forthcoming article on marijuana agriculture goes into detail on the Humboldt County Marijuana Ordinance.  Part of that analysis is reproduced below:

The Marijuana Ordinance itself is relatively comprehensive in scope, addressing farming styles (indoor, outdoor, and mixed), historical use protections and benefits for existing farms, tiered permitting requirements based on zoning classifications, total farm acreage and marijuana cultivation area, water quantity and quality protections, energy use, and farm labor standards.  The ordinance addresses many of the issues explored in this article, and the choices those issues present to local governments.  The ordinance represents a clear attempt to regulate marijuana agriculture in a tailored fashion; marijuana cultivation limits (no more than one acre) indicate a preference for small scale farming and a rejection of large-scale consolidation models, demonstration of sufficient water rights and water quality compliance permits are required, and energy used in indoor farms must come from renewable sources or be offset with carbon credits.  The ordinance even attempts to create a ‘Humboldt Artisanal Branding’ certification program for small-scale, organic marijuana farms.  The Marijuana Ordinance does not address crop insurance or disaster relief, but local governments are not well-suited to provide financial services of this nature.

The central tension local governments face when regulating marijuana agriculture, particularly in jurisdictions where marijuana is already a primary crop, is between the need to bring farmers out of the shadows and into the regulatory system, on the one hand, and the need to create and enforce regulations that have a meaningful impact on cultivation and the direction and impact of the industry, on the other hand.  The Marijuana Ordinance addresses this tension by incentivizing existing farmers to register and participate with the county by providing benefits to those farmers who step forward within 180 days following passage of the Ordinance.  Those benefits include a larger maximum cultivation area (43,560 square feet, as opposed to a maximum 10,000 square feet for new farms), as well as a certificate of good standing for purposes of priority processing of state permits.  In addition, the ordinance incentivizes the retirement and relocation of existing farms located in environmentally sensitive areas by allowing farmers to cultivate an area four times larger in environmentally resilient areas.

It remains to be seen if the certificate of good standing will have meaningful value, but the cultivation area restrictions on new farms (which would include existing farms that chose not to register by the deadline) are significant, and may ultimately provide a pronounced advantage to existing farmers, who can cultivate an area over four times larger than new farmers.  In my conversations with farmers in the county, “to legalize or not to legalize” has been a frequent topic of debate.  Considering the isolationist nature of the marijuana farming industry in northern California, that debate is a promising sign for the county.

In other aspects, the Marijuana Ordinance is less well thought out.  It is logical to require that marijuana farmers have water rights (either riparian or by appropriation) sufficient to meet their agricultural needs, as well as water use plans and other documents certifying water use, but the ordinance may require water rights holders to agree to forego any water diversions from May 15th to October 31st.  Instead, marijuana farmers would be required to collect and store water during the rainy season in quantities sufficient for the dry season.  While there is some evidence that water used for purposes of marijuana cultivation may have adverse effects on water resources during periods of low flow, the ordinance’s prohibition on dry season water use as a general rule is unprecedented.  

The environmental impacts of this rule are unclear, as well.  While wet season flows are high and waterways can likely support an increase in diversions, ecological processes may depend on these traditionally high flows, and widespread wet season diversions and water storage may disrupt the wet season environment.  In addition, since irrigation demands are substantial during the dry season, the environmental impact of building large storage tanks on every marijuana farm, necessitating building materials, construction waste, and a storage footprint, may outweigh the benefits intended by the rule.  Moreover, if this rule is perceived to be unreasonable and infeasible by marijuana farmers, they may reject the ordinance and regulatory process as a whole.

Cognizant of its shortcomings and the hurried nature of its drafting, the Marijuana Ordinance contains a flexibility provision that may reassure skeptical farmers that compliance is attainable.  If, upon inspection, a marijuana farm does not comply with the requirements of the ordinance, a farmer may nonetheless be granted a provisional license, as well as a two-year window within which to cure the violation.  The provision is not only generous with respect to the compliance grace period, it also may provide enough time for county officials and marijuana farming representatives to address problematic aspects of the ordinance and make amendments prior to enforcement of violations.  It will take time for farmers to adjust to the dry season water use ban, if they adjust at all, but two years may be sufficient to devise wet season storage infrastructure or develop an alternative water use plan with the county and state officials. 

It is clear that marijuana ordinances are in their infancy.  So far most local governments have only superficially addressed marijuana agriculture.  Humboldt County, however, has capitalized on its economic and political ties with the marijuana farming community to develop a first-of-its-kind marijuana agriculture ordinance.  It remains to be seen if the county’s marijuana farmers buy into the regulatory framework, but initial signs are promising.  As marijuana legalization and regulation moves forward, the Humboldt County Marijuana Ordinance may prove to be a model for local governments.